Anyone who has embarked on a course of therapy will know what a weight is lifted through talking over one’s problems in a dedicated space. But as their patients’ problems are halved and shared does the therapist then take on the burden that their clients shed?
In Sarah Daniels’ new play Between Us, premiering at the Arcola, Charlotte Cornwell plays Julia, a therapist who finds release from her day job in front of a paying audience – talking through her own anxieties at a regular stand-up comedy night. Art is therapy, and for Julia it’s an opportunity for her to purge herself.
Daniels’ play connects the lives of four characters through their relationship to Julia. The play is told episodically: through Julia’s stand-up routines, a series of one-sided conversations in the therapist’s chair, and a couple of short two and three hander scenes. The common theme that links all this together is adoption, its successes and failures, and a number of juxtapositions emerge.
The set is simple: a blue armchair sits on a maroon plinth against the exposed brickwork of the Arcola’s smaller studio. It’s oddly reminiscent of a Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle-style show, which comes to feel quite fitting.
Callum Dixon’s character, Dave, a client of Julia’s, tells of how, at the age of fifteen, he and his friends took advantage of a young woman with learning difficulties after finding her in floods of tears outside her flat. Living alone, abandoned by her partner, and unable even to tell the time, her young children are eventually removed from her by social services and are later taken on by a couple who have left it too late to have children of their own.
The new adoptive mother, Teresa, has also sought our therapy; she is failing to cope with the children, who have been left with behavioural problems as a result of neglect. Georgina Rich portrays the tensions of the new mother caught between failing relationships with her partner and her new children with sensitivity, ultimately she admits defeat and decides to give the children back.
At the same time Julia is in the process of meeting up for the first time with the biological daughter she gave up for adoption. In this case the adoption process has been successful, despite Julia’s clear disappointment that her daughter hails from that mythical land of deprivation and ignorance known as ‘up north’.
This is one of the play’s biggest issues. From its opening moments, it exudes a sense of middle-class London-centric self-satisfaction, presenting a stale view of privilege where even the flashest restaurant in Birmingham would only rate “one above Nando’s in London”. It’s clearly meant to be amusing that in Teresa’s affluent household, she keeps a jar of instant coffee in the cupboard for workmen and a cafetiere for those that know better. In her opening gambit Julia addresses the audience directly, saying how smug we must all feel for having come on safari to Dalston to see a piece of political theatre. But this is not political theatre in any real sense: the views expressed are hackneyed, the social commentary is commonplace, and the perception of society is at best misguided.
Julia frequently insists that sexism is no longer a problem “look at how far we have come” she keeps telling us. Suggesting that because men aren’t embarrassed about menstrual cycles anymore we should be grateful that gender discrimination has finally ceased and should stop going on about it.
Dave eventually leaves therapy, his depression cured, his therapist having absolved him of the guilt and regret he harboured for the reprehensible cruelty he inflicted on a woman with learning difficulties many years before.
The idea that he has bought his own forgiveness from his therapist and that she has enabled him to exonerate himself of a gross deed is an interesting one and subtly presented. But this morally complex conclusion appears only at the very end of the play, it is as Julia explains to us in the piece – a doorknob disclosure. One that the confessor only has the bravery to share at the last possible moment.
Although the performances are all good, the play itself doesn’t feel sufficiently engaged with either its subject matter or the wider world and fails to shed any new light on how people behave. The greatest shame is that Daniels did not have the courage to plant her most interesting point at the centre of her play.