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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Little Baby Nothing
byBen Clover

You can't worship Satan on a diet.
-- El
Little Baby Nothing
Alice O'Connel as El, Tom Daplyn as Joby, Suzan Sylvester as Anna and Jenny Platt as Erin
(Photo: Gordon Rainsford)
Not since the first series of The Osbournes have the concerns of family life and Satanic ritual been so entertainingly combined. Little Baby Nothing follows the effects on three teenagers and the single mother that raised one of them when a Ouija board session becomes a flash point of familial and sexual tension. Set in East Bristol, Catherine Johnson's new play at the Bush Theatre is easily the more entertaining and believable of the two.

Little Baby Nothing is Catherine Johnson's first play at the Bush theatre since writing the book for the hit West End and Broadway musical Mamma Mia. Taking its title from a Manic Street Preachers' song about nihilism, pornography and degradation, we weren't quite sure what to expect. The promotional material looked like a Goth theme night and played up the juvenile absorption of being a teenager in this specific sub-culture.

Although these references are specific and contemporary, the pseudo Satanism of the teenagers, their clothes and their music are just that: display and attention seeking. Beneath the make up, this play has a beating emotional core that powers a Miller-esque family drama. Where Miller dealt in patriarchs, the focus here is on Anna (Suzan Sylvester) and El (Alice O'Connell), mother and daughter. El's manipulation of her two friends in a love triangle and Anna's relationship with doting handy man and surrogate father figure Craig (Jem Wall) provide the laughs at the beginning that turn sinister as the evening progresses.

The first time we see Anna she has come home drunk and disturbed a birthday celebration the teenagers were planning to enliven with a Ouija board. This stock occult item is a great device for the deception of others and oneself and from this point the piece's plotting escalates to ever higher stakes. Although the play seems to promise sex, drugs and violence it slyly disarms these expectations and always goes back to the relationship at the heart of the play.

The production is very slick and Jonathon Fensom's set well observed but it is the performances that really stand out. All three of the youths, the self styled "Unholy Trinity", are excellent and give realistic and hilarious performances without ever patronising the characters. Hats off to the young cast for depicting the sheer physical awkwardness of fifteen year olds so well and to Tom Daplyn's Joby in particular. No one can hold a candle to him like he holds it himself. As the mother Anna, Suzan Sylvester has the most challenging role. The drunken shouting, pleading, wisecracking and other tactics to get her daughter's attention are a simple inversion of the normal parent-teenager dynamic but is played so well that it is as moving as something out of Chekhov. In fact the listless, nihilism and unfocussed anger of Alice O'Connell's El, is strangely reminiscent of Uncle Vanya.

Little Baby Nothing is not really about Satanism anymore than are El's rituals, but it uses its themes to show the way peers treat one another. In the same way the play's teenagers use its rituals for escape, excitement and self definition. Though marketed to look like a comedy about pretentious teenagers and their pretentious music, this play is too clever to just score easy points. Teenagers are, of course, infinitely more eloquent with their friends than their parents and this simple, sad truth is subtly sewn into the end of this play.

Little Baby Nothing
Written by Catherine Johnson
Directed by Mike Bradwell

With: Alice O'Connell, Jenny Platt, Tom Doplyn, Suzan Sylvester, Jem Wall
Designer: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting Designer: Nick Richings
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours fifteen minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7610 4224
Booking to 21st June 2003
Reviewed by Ben Clover based on 23rd May 2003 Performance at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush Green, London W12 (Tube Station: Shepherds Bush)

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