REVIEW: Merit, Finborough Theatre ✭✭✭

Merit at the Finborough Theatre
Ellie Turner and Karen Ascoe in Merit. Photo: Robert Workman

Finborough Theatre
3rd March 2016
3 Stars
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Merit at The Finborough by Alexandra Wood explores the unravelling relationship between a mother and daughter during the financial crash in 2013 Spain. A fast paced two-hander, the play confronts the morality of ambition, the nature of altruism and how success affects our responsibilities to family and friends.

The traverse set is pleasingly open and spacious for the Finborough, with basic gauze covered frames suggesting walls at either side of the stage. These are tastefully up-lit in eerie blue and dusky orange by the keen aesthetic eye of Rob Mills. Max Pappenheim’s Spanish Guitar blends into a fierce house soundscape disturbing the calm as the two actors enter the space. Like bull-fighters they circle before taking position in the darkness, ready for the commencing conflict. Unfortunately, the following 75 minutes don’t live up to this striking start and the drama never really surpasses this level of intensity.

This play was thoroughly work-shopped in Theatre Royal Plymouth and with the brilliant Forge but something has been lost in transit. The relationship between Sophia and her mother seems entirely cold and unsalvageable from the very beginning and nothing happens during the arc of the play to suggest they really want to or can rescue it. Body language is closed off and yet confrontational, driven by a twitchy nervous energy and not once do they touch. There are some nice motifs during slow scene changes where they reset, where Sophia mirrors her mother’s actions on a raised step suggesting her newly elevated status in life and opinion of herself.

The recently exacerbated disconnection between mother and daughter, we are lead to believe, is because Sophia has landed her dream job in an unimaginably ruthless market and that her mother finds her choices morally reprehensible. This is a fascinating premise for a play, but personally I would have preferred the focus to be on the minutiae of their fraying relationship rather than the clunkily shoe horned murder sub-plot of Sophia’s idolised boss Antonio. Indeed, for a play promisingly centred on two women, everything in the play is coloured by this phantom banker. As an examination of modern women in an increasingly hostile and competitive working environment, both women still seem disappointingly defined by their relationship with a man in a position of power.

There are some lovely moments where Karen Pascoe as Patricia drops the veneer and beneath the sparring we glimpse her desperation, and equally Ellie Turner provides levity in the most brutal of conversations between mother and daughter, however,Merit as a whole for me, didn’t deliver on its patent potential.

Merit runs at the Finborough Theatre until 29 March 2016

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