REVIEW: [Blank], Donmar Warehouse London ✭✭✭✭

Paul T Davies reviews [Blank], a play by Alice Birch, a co-production between the Donmar Warehouse and Clean Break.

[Blank] review Donmar Warehouse
The Company in [Blank] at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Donmar Warehouse
4 Stars

Alice Birch is one of the most innovative playwrights of the current scene, and this new play, working closely with Clean Break, celebrating four decades of the company that work with and alongside female prisoners, is further proof of her innovation. She invites the company, and any company that produces this play, in a professional or amateur context, to choose from 100 possible scenes. It asks the company to consider choices, to shape a unique production, and here we see director Maria Aberg’s thirty selected scenes. It has been shaped into a thought-provoking, intensely involving piece, that fits perfectly into the intimacy of the Donmar space, with designer Rosie Elnile keeping the women separated even when under the one prison roof.

Blank review Alice Birch
Zainab Hasan and Thusitha Jayasundera. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Above all, the work of Clean Break and the writing of Birch take us far away from the glamorous stereotype of female prisons portrayed in Bad Girls The Musical or Orange is The New Black. The scenes are raw, fragmentary, and the audience have to work to make connections between them. What struck me was how few scenes are actually set inside prison walls, other walls outside, such as poverty, drug addiction and abusive relationships are presented to demonstrate the almost inevitable path to incarceration. It is also, in Aberg’s selection, a play about mothers and daughters, mothers who remain heartbreakingly resolute in front of their drug-addicted daughters, (Thusitha Jayasundera excellent here), mothers breaking under the strain of a child’s cry, (Joanna Horton broken and devastating), and mothers trying to make amends, (Lucy Edkins so good I regretted not seeing more of her until the final scene.)

Donmar Warehouse Clean Break
The company of [Blank]. Photo: Helen Maybanks
The whole ensemble, however, is flawless, even in some of the shortest scenes they convey fathoms of need and yearning for love while barriers are still in place,  Carrier Bags being a perfect example. The longest scene is Dinner Party, where a group of female friends come together to celebrate a new relationship. Here, with its overlapping dialogue, unfinished sentences and huge themes explored through a company of women, Birch is seamlessly placed into the cultural landscape bequeathed by Caryl Churchill. Just as the scene begins to outstay it’s welcome, (it is difficult to hear most of the conversations), a delivery of drugs arrives without interrupting the polite, loud, middle-class evening, That’s when Petra Letang’s character, (B), delivers a speech that cuts through their middle class, bleeding hearts, bullshit hypocrisy with forensic skill, making me want to cheer, such is the complexity and skill of this piece.

With a running time of 1 hour 55 with no interval, it’s a test of endurance on your buttocks on the Donmar benches,  and much of the material is bleak, though there are highly effective moments of laughter, sometimes bitter. But the excellent acting, direction and script make this a production well worth your time, and it will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

Until 30 November 2019

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