“I’m not sure you quite appreciate what it’s like now”
First seen as part of the Royal Court’s Open Court season and then getting its full premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last year, Alexandra Wood’s Merit now makes its London debut at the Finborough. Written as a response to the economic crisis and particularly how hard austerity bit in Spain, the play actually emerges as something of a psychological study of a mother and daughter in extremis and the lengths people will extend to when pushed.
Against all odds and the rising level of unemployment among her friends and family, Sofia has secured herself a job as PA to a wealthy banker. But her mother Patricia is wary, suspicious of what Sofia might have compromised in order to secure the position and so begins the questioning of morality in this two-hander. How far is too far when it comes to individual need? Does that change when greater societal issues are at hand? Can you always believe your mother?
Tom Littler’s production makes a virtue of pointing out the similarities between these two women through their mirrored actions in the onstage scene and costume changes, but what is more fascinating is the way in which they diverge as the play progresses. Ellie Turner’s sparky Sofia is a vibrant presence, initially full of resentment at being so thoroughly challenged but increasingly shaded as her relationship with boss Antonio falls under further scrutiny.
And Karen Ascoe’s Patricia is wonderfully slippery, parental concern transforming into something else entirely as pressures rise and the transparency of her own motives comes into question. Wood’s writing feels more cerebral than characterful but Littler teases two fascinating performances from his company and in their edgy movement, never quite settling into anything resembling comfort across the traverse design of Philip Lindley’s set, maintain a tense energy that resonates for beyond its Spanish setting.