An unstoppable force of nature has swept away a house. With almost equally unstoppable force, a young woman sets out to track down its owner, carrying inside her his dead daughter’s heart. The premise of Tom Morton-Smith’s play for Box of Tricks Theatre is starkly original, even if its production is at times uneven and static.
21 year old Marnie and her older brother Linus have travelled to a seaside town to meet Simon, whose family home was lost to coastal erosion. That is far from the only tragedy that has befallen him: his wife passed away young, one of his daughters died in a car accident when he was in the driver’s seat, and his other daughter has pretty much broken all contact with him. With such a traumatic past, it is no surprise he is reluctant to meet Marnie, the grateful if troubled recipient of his dead daughter’s donor heart.
Marnie breaks protocol and ignores the advice that organ recipients ought to avoid contact with donors and their families. Struggling with this foreign body inside her, she sets out to make her new heart not a stranger. She makes Simon take her to the location of his former family home, to try to get a picture of who and what have shaped this new heart of hers. Her brother, meanwhile, strikes up a complicated relationship with the donor’s identical twin.
In an interview with Exeunt Magazine, Morton-Smith laments the disappearance of family dramas from contemporary playwriting in favour of emulations of the in-yer-face writers and formal experimentation of the nineties and the noughties. With In Doggerland, he makes a commendable effort to redress the balance. Yet those decades also saw a rise of the haunted in theatre, with dead, unseen or in other ways ghostly characters at the centre of action – Sarah Kane’s Cleansed or Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life providing clear examples – and In Doggerland similarly ventures into the territory of an absent-yet-dominant character. The dead heart donor becomes the pivot in an intricate web of fraught relationships and traumatic encounters.
It is a strong source for drama, not in an epic, paradigm-shattering vein, but rather a thoughtful, fragile, and tender one. The seeming simplicity of Morton-Smith’s dialogue belies a rich, poetic meditation on loss, identity and the complexity of care.
Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder, co-artistic director of Box of Tricks, handles the play with appropriate attentiveness and an evident talent for finding the delicate, the intimate and the personal. This generates sensitive performances from the excellent cast of four, but sometimes leaves the production lacking action. “Are we going to talk?” probes one of the characters irritably, and that is exactly what this production seems to favour, as scenes are repeatedly given a static, speech-centred approach. Not only does this downplay the potential Morton-Smith provides to delve deeper into the metaphoric, the visual and the theatrical, but crucially the parallel between the loss of the family home and the transplant-narrative becomes muddled. An unclear lighting design, extended fussiness over scene-changes that don’t change the scene, and a sound design that never seems to know whether it should be there or not don’t help.
Where Tyrrell-Pinder excels, however, is in the powerful rendering of character in her universally strong cast, with stand-out performances from Clive Moore and Natalie Grady as the alienated father and daughter, and sensitive work by Benjamin Blyth and Jennifer Tan as the curious siblings.