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'That Is Not Who I Am' review — a significant play that deserves attention

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Rarely is a review one big spoiler but there’s simply no other way to discuss, or assess, That Is Not Who I Am, the disturbing new Royal Court offering that emphatically Is Not What It Says It Is! Stop here if you want to attend the play in, as it were, a pristine state. But whether you read on or not, this is a significant achievement that deserves attention.

Trumpeted as a discovery from the pen of an unknown security industry veteran called Dave Davidson, whose authorial skills come endorsed by raves from the esteemed likes of Tony winners Dennis Kelly and Simon Stephens, the show is in fact the work of Court alum Lucy Kirkwood: her superb The Children transferred intact from the Sloane Square venue to Broadway in 2017, earning a Tony nod for Best Play.

Indeed, take hold of the playtext and its cover slips away to reveal an actual play called Rapture, with Kirkwood’s name attached. Why might she be so keen on disguise?

Because, we’re told at the start, the content of this 110-minute one-act (no interval) is sufficiently sensitive that all involved have had to tread carefully. Legal risks abound and perhaps even threats to the safety of Kirkwood herself.

What we’re apparently watching is a dramatised account of the unfolding relationship between a young couple, Noah and Celeste Quilter, who fell rather grievously foul of the authorities and died of gunshot wounds to their heads during the pandemic.

Drawing on tapes of their odd (to put it mildly) lives that were leaked via Reddit, Kirkwood herself appears in the fretful guise of a gatheringly anxious Priyanga Burford who has filled in as the play’s third character, we’re told, where the dramatist herself was reluctant to tread. (That Kirkwood isn’t an actress whereas Burford is might have something to do with it, too.) We’re hearing nothing, apparently, that wasn’t actually spoken by the couple even if Kirkwood exercised dramatic license with the timeline.

We first find Noah (Jake Davies) and Celeste (the wonderful Siena Kelly) glimpsed high up Naomi Dawson’s flexible set which stagehands turn this way and that throughout as if to highlight the rough-and-ready nature of a play that piles meta-theatre so high that you may need to deactivate your brain slightly once it is over.

Noah thinks Celeste is perfect, whilst she worries about her manners and what rating he might give her on an arranged blind date that is clearly going very well indeed. And before you know it, we’re in summer 2012 during the Olympics and the couple have moved in together.

Life would be idyllic were it not for the strange calls Noah starts receiving on a regular basis and the anxieties (not least financial) that come with coupledom: “when you stop being ethereal creatures who live on sex and cereal and have to start discussing Council Tax and why the bin smells like that”, as Kirkwood puts it rather eloquently in her ongoing narration of events.

The play from this point should really be allowed to work its sinuous, ingenious way onwards without too much foreknowledge beyond pointing out that it put my guest and me in mind of those great political-paranoia/surveillance-themed films of the 1970s like The Parallax View and The Conversation. This is cut from the same sceptical, anxious cloth.

Kirkwood’s topic is an increasingly intrusive government that craves information about the same citizenry that it doesn’t value. We’re reminded – not for the first time – that the UK is unusually CC camera-intensive and that many a love story conceived in rapture can take an entirely different course: the play’s title turns out, in context, to be a verb as much as a noun. It also means “seized” in medieval French, we’re informed, except, as gets also pointed out, we’re not in medieval France.

Quite what you make of this all will vary greatly and there were already plenty who were quick to deride as a gimmick the invention of Davidson – when, in fact, such fakery is inescapably linked to a play marinated in an age where, terrifyingly, we genuinely do seem to be losing our grip on what is actually going on around us: look at American realpolitik if you need confirmation of that baleful truth.

For my part, I was not just swept along but also moved and at times genuinely shaken by the startling anger underpinning an (apparent!) tragedy that brings in a shouty Sophie Melville towards the end to ramp up the dynamics yet further just when the play seems to have turned itself inside out for keeps.

Burford is seen carrying a script that offers scant support as she gets ever more enmeshed in the Quilters’ plight: her various line stumbles may well be intended as key components of the jarring affect of Lucy Morrison’s shrewd direction.

Davies and Kelly are terrific as a couple in thrall to two imaginations in overdrive who career towards disaster, taking a 4-year-old daughter with them, even as they hope they are setting the world to rights.

Activists by temperament, they end up stay-at-homes living on the breadline and anxious about leaving the house. They’re victims of a climate (a key word for the pair) that has simply got too much to bear. The truth or not of the story on view notwithstanding, who amongst us hasn’t experienced that very feeling in recent years in fearful recognition of the chaos that surely lies in wait?

That Is Not Who I Am is at the Royal Court to 16 July. Book That Is Not Who I Am tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Siena Kelly, Jake Davies, Priyanga Burford (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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