In an interview with Exeunt earlier this month, playwright Lou Ramsden said that she wanted to create claustrophobic, unsettling theatre that examines how people succumb to their inner darkness. In Hundreds and Thousands, these intentions are writ large, even if they are not entirely successfully played out.
Lorna is a lonely woman nearing middle age and desperate for marriage and a baby; so happy to move into her boyfriend Allan’s isolated cottage – and desperate enough that when she discovers his horrific secret, she tries first to rationalise his behaviour before being dragged into his worldview, until finally it is she that encourages him in ever greater cruelty.
At one level, this is a pitch black fairy tale, with hints of both Bluebeard – the perils of the curious woman – and the bleakness of the original Brothers Grimm tales, where female transgressors are treated violently and unmercifully, and woman should always beware woman. Into that mix, Ramsden stirs in the idea of modern female perfidy; asking what makes women like Maxine Carr and Myra Hindley complicit in the evil instigated by their men.
It is here that the play is most interesting, in this examination into complicity and how a series of moral missteps can lead to an utter failure of conscience. At the start, Lorna clearly persuades herself that in staying she is helping Tiggy, the victim of Allan’s oppression, but the hollowness of her motives is revealed by how quickly she is willing to abandon this vulnerable woman when her own position is threatened.
Unfortunately it is also here the production falters. Sukie Smith gives a suitably enervated performance as Lorna but you never get a real sense of why she falls so quickly; it would have been far more interesting to see a stronger and more sensible woman gradually worn down. As it is, her pathetic child-woman routine (she collects vintage dolls, for heaven’s sake) feels like a heavy handed and vaguely insulting stereotype.
In the role of Allan, too, there are problems; Stuart Laing possesses the necessary mercurial personality, flashing between affection and menace as he flits between an amiable wide boy routine and something far darker, but he is never quite charming enough to explain Lorna’s attachment. He’s at his most interesting when calmly justifying his situation, but the play needs a more sustained and eroding threat than he provides.
As the brutalised Tiggy, Nadine Lewington is suitably broken, albeit hampered by the fact that her tethered shuffling calls to mind Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall, so can be at times unintentionally funny. Her flashes of stubbornness and resistance, first encouraged by and then sparked against Lorna, make her more than just a shadowy victim, and there is a pleasing ambiguity about her origins that feeds into the story’s fairytale qualities; is she a cuckoo-like changeling or brutalised Cinderella?
As Lorna’s brother Jonathan, Robert Wilfort’s performance is fine but hampered by the play’s weakest writing; his character never comes across as more than a stereotype, the bleeding heart liberal whose values are inherently funny and probably a lie. He is a comedy Guardianista whom we are encouraged to laugh at for his self-consciously ethical stances and right-on ways, his desperate thrall to his strong-willed off-stage wife illustrating an urban lack of masculinity that is intended as a contrast to Allan’s country ruggedness. His own hypocrisy is seen as inevitable in such a lily-livered emasculate – he disapproves of Allan, though it is suggested that there is a more than an element of class snobbery in this – but is happy to overlook that disdain to solve his own financial and familial woes, though the one thing the play does get right is to leave us guessing – in the end we can only wonder just how far he is willing to be compromised.
Polly Sullivan’s deceptively cosy set works well in the compact environs of the Soho Theatre, emphasising the closed in world of the action. While director Lisa Spirling could have ironed out some of the unevenness in the performances, she does manage to keep the tension high – there are some truly shocking moments – while also allowing the dark humour of the piece to breathe.
Ramsden is unarguably a talented playwright. Hundreds and Thousands is interesting and challenging, illuminated by flashes of clever and original writing, but the play never quite lives up to its ambitions, leaving you not only unsettled but, ultimately, unsatisfied as well.