“I bet you’d rather be at Mamma Mia”
Sarah Daniels’ new play for the Arcola opens with a cracking sequence that pokes fun at stereotypical theatregoers and set the scene intriguingly for what is to come. There’s something wonderfully subversive about Julia’s stand-up routine, especially before its true purpose really manifests itself, the forthrightness with which she muses about female sexuality has a delicious edge (although I’ll never hear ‘snack box’ the same way again) and it is almost a shame that there isn’t more of this taboo-busting chat alongside the outrageous liberties she later takes in taking inspiration from her work and life to make people laugh.
For we soon find out that she is a therapist and we get to eavesdrop on two of her regular patients as they work through the issues plaguing them. Waitrose shopper Teresa is struggling with the realities of having adopted two troubled children, five star builder Dave is plagued with depression after the birth of his baby daughter, and even Julia herself is coming to terms with meeting the daughter she gave up for adoption long ago. As is often the way in plays such as these, the stories of these three are interlinked in ways they can’t even imagine and Daniels teases out the reveals with real skill, ensuring the level of Between Us never flags.
She also cleverly keeps the majority of the play in monologue. We’re the audience for Julia’s stand-up and the therapist for the other two, which keeps us actively engaged in these engrossing stories. Only when Julia is trying to reconnect with her daughter are we the passive audience, but no less involved in wanting their issues to be amicably resolved. Daniels has much that is interesting to say about the nature of parent/child relationships and the responsibilities that we hold to others in our life, even after a long time has passed by. The difficulties inherent in adoption also rear their head in different ways, always thought-provoking in their frankness.
It is a much over-used term but Between Us really does fall into the ‘darkly comic’ category in that it frequently manages to make you laugh out loud and wince at the same time. John Burgess’ production encourages a directness of approach that his cast revel in delivering. So Charlotte Cornwell works the audience expertly as if we were in her own comedy club, Callum Dixon’s affability draws us in closely but belies the darker places he ends up taking us to and Georgina Rich is heart-breakingly intense as the woman whose experience of motherhood has fallen so very short of what she, and society, had told her it would be.
Combined with a fascinating take on feminism and the ways in which it has advanced from the 70s, this emerges as a small but perfectly formed piece of drama. It introduces and interrogates its themes deeply despite the compact running time (something a great number of dramatists would do well to take note of) and achieves a great balance of comedy and pathos in taking apart modern neuroses and asking what it is that would really make us feel better.