“People look their most beautiful when they’re about to cry…”
Lancashire-born Lila Whelan’s debut play The Deep Space follows in the steps of last year’s extremely well-received Mercury Fur in identifying the Old Red Lion as an excellent theatre to put on claustrophobically intimate and emotionally intense pieces of drama. And whilst this is ostensibly a subtler affair than Ridley, Whelan has constructed a perceptively layered play which unwinds and uncoils with a measured precision as a conversation between two women in a nondescript interrogation room somewhere in the north of England delves into the depths of genuine psychological horror.
The sharply-suited Caitlin is a New York-based lawyer-type figure meeting with Sam, a mother whose family has died in a house fire but as she slowly teases the story from her reluctant client, terrible secrets come tumbling from the closets of both women. To say much more is to get dangerously close to spoiler territory, but it isn’t saying too much to say that it is upon this crucial relationship that the show hinges and it delivers it well. Whelan takes on the insistently probing Caitlin, impatient but inescapably drawn to the case and convinces of her crumbling composure and as Sam, Abbiegale Duncan nails the sullen demeanour of a young woman dazed from the considerable amount that life has thrown at her.
Whelan chooses to reveal the stories of the past, such as they have impacted on present actions, through flashbacks sprinkled into the narrative and whilst it is an effective way of drip-feeding the necessary information into the story, they didn’t always have the same sense of urgent purpose as the main confrontation. The minimalist design does too little I feel and what it does, isn’t quite clear enough. Oliver Yellop’s charismatic Liam makes a persuasive case for the complexity of marital abuse though, bravely showing that there can be a grey area even in the most shocking of circumstances.
If one were to list the subjects that the show eventually goes on to cover in its uncovering of the troubled past, it would seem like a Greek tragedy on overload, but it is too Whelan’s credit that she marshals them into a convincing through-line which, though often close to unbearable, compels and convinces and forces its audience to confront the question of exactly how far the limits of tolerance can be tested and what happens when they break.