Tuesday, 20 September 2016
by Nathaniel Martello-White
The Broken Branch
Another play about a family tree cracking and snapping but this time the roots of the familial problems go deeper than First World Problems in Nathaniel Martello-White's Torn directed by Richard Twyman in the Jerwood Theatre upstairs at the Royal Court.
We enter what appears to be an institutional room with wooden floor, moulded plastic grey plastic chairs for the audience in a round - a few raised up at the back like bar chairs, the only concession, along with lighting and sound, to the theatrical space designed by Ultz.
Already in the room is Angel (Adelle Leonce) who converses with the audience, helps herself to a drink from the tea urn on a table in one corner. So Angel is aware that people are watching as she draws out chairs for the family members, we are about to learn, she has drawn together. But for what?
Maybe at first it seems like a showdown - we know from Angel's first anouncement to us, something bad happened - but after a while, it seems that even Angel does not even know why she has brought the eight family members together and what she expects. Except she knows, we have seen this at the beginning of course, she is showing us.
Although the family at first trickle in with few words, just uncertainty as to why they have been called together, the trickle of words soon turns into a deluge. The audience has to adjust to the criss-crossing conversations and rising cadences as emotions boil up and over.
At one point an analogy to a flock of birds of prey becomes explicit and it seems this is how the play is structured. The lone one at first and gradually more and more flock in and greet and peck at each other.
And they are dangerous issues to peck at: the consequences of mixed race, yes, harking back to past slavery but also feeding into current issues. Slave owning and present day debt collection merge together with child abuse emerging from both.
At just over ninety minutes, the story shifts and turns around fractured family and time lines. It's a hard ask for an audience to concentrate intently all the time and there are moments when the action seems to sag into too much intricacy, shouting matches and huge-eyed Angel can only be static, standing apart as a bystander.
Yet a story with many layers over time and space does emerge of a child torn from the mainstream of her family by past and present economics, a family pitted against itself and manipulated in spite of itself by a criminal stepfather. It's not perfect as we've indicated but stand out performances do emerge from Leonce as Angel, her mother known only as Twin 1, Indra Ové, Roger Griffiths as Angel's father Brian, Kirsty Bushell as both fairer Aunty J and white Irish Nanny and James Hillier as stepfather Steve.
Director Twyman with lighting by Charles Balfour and sound by Gareth Fry keep up the pace and it's an amber/green TLT light for this difficult but rewarding play.