“You’ve more chance of survival if you stay put”
Paul Miller’s subtle reinvention of the Orange Tree continues apace with Deborah Bruce’s The Distance, an exploration of a more complex side to parenting and friendship that is challenged when one of their group suddenly returns from Australia. Bea emigrated there to get married and have two beautiful kids but she’s turned up on best friend Kate’s Sussex doorstep alone and with their other good friend Alex also there to lend support, they to sort out Bea’s life for her, little suspecting what it is that Bea has actually done. Truth be told, I wasn’t the hugest fan of Bruce’s first play Godchild which premiered downstairs at Hampstead last year but the chance to see Helen Baxendale return to the stage tempted me over to Richmond.
There’s much to appreciate in the amusing and frank way Bruce depicts how parenthood, and different experiences thereof, affects the tight bonds of friendship. The ease with which Baxendale’s Bea, Clare Lawrence-Moody’s Kate and Emma Beattie’s Alex interact with each other is brilliantly portrayed as they bicker and banter and nurture and natter – their lives don’t stop because of Bea’s dilemma, it just has to fit into the tumble of jigsaw pieces that makes up the hustle and bustle of everyday living and so gets added to the ever-growing list of things that need to get sorted. The inclusion of the London riots is a canny move here, not as a focal point for the play but just a backdrop of a world still spinning.
And with everyone having their own set of internal priorities, their approaches differ. As a relatively new mother who struggled through years of IVF, Kate cannot conceive of a world that is not predicated on the expression of maternal love and that drives her every action; whilst Alex, a single mother of three boys including a winsome teenager Liam, is more open to letting Bea – and pretty much anyone – do what they want. On top of that though, Bea’s putative articulation of exactly what it is she has decided still comes as an eye-opener, the deviation from the societal norm highly intriguing in Baxendale’s well-modulated performance.
Bruce also has a great eye for the comic detailing which shines brightly in Charlotte Gwinner’s production – the doom-laden text from Lewisham Council is brilliantly deployed by Beattie as a running joke, and she nails everything about teenagers in one genius anecdote which Bill Milner’s Liam executes perfectly. Throw in some cleverly nuanced male characters – Daniel Hawksford and Oliver Ryan both revelling in the opportunity to bring real depth that confounds our initial expectations – and a structural device that throws us in at the deep end but also frames the story in a much more fascinating manner than a strictly linear approach would have given, and The Distance emerges as a cracking piece of astute observational theatre.