Following a successful run as part of Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs programme, Maria Aberg’s production of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s first full length play transfers to Trafalgar Studio 2 in the West End.
After a year and a half serving in Afghanistan, the first thing Deb sees on returning to the family nest is her hirsute dad bounding stark-bollock naked into the kitchen. ‘MAAAAATE!’ he shouts, grabbing her in a headlock and knuckling her scalp. Beers and burnt lasagne follow and, though these scenes are outwardly jolly, Malcolm gradually reveals more about this family, allowing for glimpses of the cruelty that lies beneath the surface. Slowly it becomes apparent what drove Deb away in the first place.
These scenes of not-so-blissful domesticity are interspersed with flashbacks to Deb’s life in the forces, scenes with her fellow soldier and sparring partner, Sarko (impressively played by Calum Callaghan). Parallels are drawn between her life at home and her life in the military; in both worlds Deb is required to stand up for herself and fight for her right to be taken seriously; in both worlds women are viewed as little more than providers of sex. ‘What is the point in having you out here if there ain’t any perks?’ Sarko snarls.‘What is the point?’ her dad echoes, ‘of having a wife if you can’t get it on tap?’
As Deb, Joanna Horton’s performance is compelling. Having always been ‘different’, she clings to her identity as a soldier. Determined to prove herself as capable as any man and desperate for acceptance in this world where ‘dickhead’, ‘twat’ and ‘fucking prick’ are the normal mode of address, she swaggers around like one of the lads, puffing out her chest, crowing and teasing, joining in with their sexual banter – even in their coarse objectification of women. She’s completely convincing as a woman who can bench press with the best of them, who can trek through the desert in 50 degree heat, carrying 50 kilos of equipment on her back: someone who is both physically strong and fierce with pride. Yet, behind her tough exterior, there’s a streak of vulnerability; profoundly affected by her mother’s absence, she yearns for ‘a bit of comfort.’
Ian Bailey is suitably repulsive as Jim, Deb’s boorish, chauvinist father, a man who makes his money running a porn website, much to his daughter’s disgust. Outwardly jovial, Bailey hints at Jim’s intolerance and cruelty; at times his character’s insensitivity is overt, such as when he congratulates his daughter on “not getting yourself disabled.” Kirsty Bushell is also frank and funny as Jo, Deb’s old school friend, who is now Jim’s live-in girlfriend.
Malcolm’s writing is sharp and witty but also very powerful in places. Her use of humour can be shocking but it helps to balance out the weighty issues being explored: guilt, gender and family politics, sex as both a commodity and a weapon. Touching, funny and brutal, this is – on many levels – an impressive first work.