In stark contrast to the atmosphere I encountered during last night's show ('The Creeper' at the Playhouse theatre) there was decidedly little coughing, sneezing or much else in terms of sound coming from the enthralled audience at the Albery watching David Harrower's play, 'Blackbird', directed by Peter Stein. A considerable hit at last year's Edinburgh International Festival, 'Blackbird' might not exactly be the most appropriate play to see on Valentine's day, because to say the least it's a 'love story' of a very different kind.
If anyone had been dozing in the audience at the beginning of the show, they were brought instantly to their senses by the ear-splitting volume of the opening music. But it's a highly appropriate beginning for a startling and emotional rollercoaster of a play, which is not what it first seems, and leaves the audience with almost as many questions at its conclusion as it poses throughout its duration.
Most of the highly charged action takes place in a dingy locker room in an anonymous manufacturing plant of some kind, possibly located on a remote and bleak industrial estate. At the start of the play, Peter brings Una furtively into the litter-strewn room. It's soon apparent that the mess in the room reflects the mess of the relationship between these 2 people.
As the characters begin to speak, we realise they haven't seen each other for some time - in fact for 15 years. Una is a vivacious and sensual young woman of 27, dressed in a blue leather coat, high heels and black stockings, but with a pony tail that seems more appropriate for a young girl. Peter (who Una knows as Ray) is 56 and is some kind of manager in the factory. Before long, we learn that they had a sexual relationship when Una was 12. Una mentions abuse, and it seems then that the play might be about paedophilia - it's not. But it takes some time before the details of the relationship begin to unfold, and not just for us, the audience, but for the characters too, since there is considerable information about their relationship and events surrounding it which the characters themselves don't know. It's a complex voyage of discovery about an unusual relationship which Una at least is not willing or able to terminate. There are twists, turns and reversals in the plot that appear with incessant regularity - moments of calm when they laugh, almost playing together, in a kind of child-like fashion, interspersed with highly charged and draining confrontational sequences.
'Blackbird' is loosely based on a well-documented, real-life drama. In 2003, former US marine Toby Studabaker met a 12-year-old Manchester girl through an internet chat room and absconded with her to Europe. Studabaker claimed he thought the girl was 19, but was finally arrested in Germany, and brought back to Manchester for trial. However, Harrower used Studabaker's story merely as a starting point rather than a case history.
Basically a two-hander, Jodhi May as Una and Roger Allam as Ray, command the stage for what seems a fleeting 2 hours (without an interval) keeping the audience continually on the edge of their seats. Although both actors are equally convincing and turn-in exceptionally fine performances, there was one remarkable scene where Allam seemed to be physically ageing in front of us.
Although most of the action takes place in the locker room, there's a surprising finale set in a car park complete with a real car (and accompanying fumes). Fighting and wrestling with each other in the gloom, they end up lying on each other on the floor, exhausted and covered with blood.
'Blackbird' isn't an easy or comfortable play to sit through. It's unsettling and disturbing, and makes us analyse subjects we'd rather not consider. It suggests no answers or solutions, makes no judgements, and provides us with no easy way out. But it's nevertheless an unmissable and riveting play of extraordinary quality.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Blackbird resembles an Ibsenite inquiry into the past, though lacking Ibsen's flair for psychological insight, creation of characters and nice sociological detail." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is an extraordinary, no-holds-barred drama that both chills and thrills. It tackles the provocative theme of paedophilia, but refuses to draw glib, reassuring or predictable conclusions." ROBERT HANKS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Towards the end of its two hours the play feels a little random and repetitive." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Breathtaking production...I was bowled over by the performances." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The play sets you thinking, it’s because of performances packed with feeling: May, sexually alert and teasing behind the rancorous fury; Allam, hurt, indignant yet crumpled, bowed, as if transforming himself into a tortoise complete with shell. They’re both terrific."