“The cards you’re holding? You need to establish what they’re worth”
The Papatango New Writing Festival came up with an absolute cracker in Dawn King’s Foxfinder which sold out the Finborough last winter, so it is fair to say that expectations for this year’s winner – Louise Monaghan’s Pack – are fairly high. It is an entirely different beast though and one which seems eerily well-timed as the events around the recent Rotherham by-election played out, as this is an unflinchingly raw take on racism in a different part of Yorkshire and how it has permeated our society in ways which don’t always readily manifest themselves.
Monaghan’s framing device is a bridge class at a community centre which brings working class mothers Stephie and Deb under the tutelage of Dianna, a maths teacher at the nearby high school, and they are joined by local GP Nasreen to make up the quartet. They’re a diverse group and throughout the smattering of techniques that we see them learn for this card game, the real interest comes in the tentative common ground that they find in the snippets of conversation inbetween. They discuss the husbands that they tolerate, the ageing parents that they care for, the children that they are trying to nurture, but against the febrile atmosphere of a looming British National Party rally, their lives become inextricably entangled with each other.
It is compellingly performed in Olivia Alteras’ hyper-real set, Sarah Smart gives an incredibly nuanced performance as the naive Stephie, initially all comic inarticulacy but gravitating to a substantial emotional power as horizons darken; Angela Lonsdale’s sparky and spiky Deb holds a brittle shell around her for fear of revealing the raw emotion beneath and Amita Dhiri brings a remarkable stillness to Nasreen, her composure clearly her coping mechanism in a difficult world. Denise Black does very well to bring a depth of character to the comparatively underwritten Dianna, whose presence in the play isn’t always as well-calibrated as it could be by Monaghan.
And there’s a sense of slight overburdening by the playwright as issues such as Deb’s illiteracy and the value of looking after the elderly (as well as the young) are barely explored against the main thrust of how race and class intersect and often in surprising ways, reflecting the shifting alliances and strategies of bridge. And when the play focuses on this, to shine a matter-of-fact light on the rise of the BNP and similar parties, it has a powerful persuasiveness. Director Louise Hill’s choice of scene-changing device is a curiously slow one, especially given the short running time, but the rest of her production is one to be proud of and an excellent celebration of the diversity of new writing.