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A CurtainUp London London Review

I've never loved, never desired anyone that age again
---- Ray
Jodhi May as Una and Roger Allam as Ray
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Blackbird is a remarkable play. The first hour or so tends to move very slowly but the play builds to a provocative final few scenes. But the most amazing impact of David Harrower's play is its afterlife in the discussion and controversy it excites among those who have seen it. It's a wonderfully engaging intellectual conflagration with a very slow burn.

Of course Roger Allam and Jodhi May are extremely talented stage actors and they both give exemplary performances. This is the scenario: When Una (Jodhi May) was twelve she had a sexual relationship with a forty-year old neighbour Ray (Roger Allam). He was sent to prison for six years, changed his name, and moved to another area. She stayed with her family and faced public curiosity and salaciousness. Fifteen years after their relationship, Una finds a picture of Ray in a trade magazine and traces him to his workplace. The play takes place here over the best part of two hours.

Harrower's play raises many more questions than it answers. It teaches us not to have a simplistic view of an evil, adult abuser and an innocent, victim child, although these are of course elements of any abusive relationship. Similar to Nabokov's Lolita, Una wanted Ray to love her, he was the object of her fantasy. The designer has dressed her in a tweeny pink fuscia mini skirt and a black top, black stockings and high heels. The director places her in a series of sexually aware poses, legs apart, flirtatious and arousing. At first Ray is embarrassed, ashamed, head in hands, curled up so as not to let in the terrible memories that Una brings. As Una tells her story of how she had to stay in the community as an object of public ridicule, Ray tells us what he suffered in prison with the treatment meted out by other prisoners to sex offenders: spat at, shit thrown at him. There is anger and hurt flying around as fifteen years of resentment and long unasked questions are released.

One impact is to ask questions as to how we as a society deal with abusers and the abused. It is clear that the post sexual encounter has been much more difficult for Una than what preceded it. She was questioned by the police, intimately examined by a doctor against her will. She was intimidated but resisted betraying the man she perceived as her lover. Just as the audience is snuggling into the security of a romantic tale of star crossed lovers, (there has been an element of mistaken rendezvous, each looking for the other and thinking they had been deserted), the playwright drags us out of complacency. The shock which makes the audience stifle a gasp, is one which responsible reviewers should not disclose, but suffice it to say that this event too has ambiguity. David Harrower refuses to tie up ends neatly; after all human relationships are rarely that tidy. Instead, and I have talked to several who saw this play on the same night, there are differing and opposite reactions to what we saw.

The set is a rubbish strewn unmanned canteen with the detritus of a day's worth of food leftovers. At one point Una attacks Ray and he falls, his shirt boasting tomato puree like a bleeding wound. Both use picking up litter as a favourite displacement activity, this rubbish symbolic of the mess of their unfinished relationship. Faces of Ray's co-workers pop up behind the frosted glass windows or peer round doors, these onlookers the Peeping Toms of society. Blackbird is a dark and beguiling play which stays with you. Is Ray remorseful or a very clever criminal? Is Una mentally unstable, irrevocably damaged? If yes, how did she get that way? Is it possible that a twelve year old girl and a forty year old man could fall in love with the adult not being guilty of abuse of power? Jodhi May stalks Ray like a horse out of Equus, tall strutting and unrelenting, uncovering his insecurities. "I feel like a ghost everywhere I go", she says, "People talk to me as if I wasn't there". Ray cringes and tries to hide from her words, curling up, trying to hold himself together and at the same time forming a barrier against her words. In the final and very dramatic scene in the underground car park Una is as desperate as one of the Furies. Trying to escape her, Ray drives his car onstage to a squeal of brakes in a dramatically staged finale. Remarkable!
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Peter Stein

Starring: Jodhi May, Roger Allam
With: Jessica Lucy, Maggie Walker
Set Design: Ferdinand Wögerbauer
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Ferdinando Nicci
Composer: Artura Annecchino
Costume Design: Moidele Bickel
Running time: Two hours with no interval
Box Office: 0870 950 0920
Booking to 13th May 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th February 2006 performance at the Albery, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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