The final production in Paines Plough and Oran Mor’s A Play A Pie & A Pint season at the Royal Exchange sticks to the format’s established template (45 minute running time, three-person cast) but Leo Butler’s play is a more jarring piece of writing than the others.
Two women meet up in a coffee shop after six years apart; their lives have developed very differently, with one, Lorna, now married to a barrister with an eight month old baby in tow, while the other, Nina, has recently returned from a spell overseas, where she has been working with native tribes in a tropical jungle. Neither are particularly happy with their lot in life, but it soon becomes apparent that Nina, the traveller, is a very damaged woman indeed.
Nina is a gift of a character: spectacularly inappropriate, she’s a woman who seemingly can’t go a few minutes without offending her former friend. She’s either referring to Lorna’s child as “a funny little fanny magnet” or suggesting she become her husband’s mistress; the reason for her bizarre behaviour only slowly becomes apparent over the course of the play.
Denise Hoey and Clare Waugh are well matched as Nina and Lorna, a terrific double act, with Hoey in particular outstanding as the disturbed woman. Underneath the acerbic rudeness, you can sense that her entire life is falling apart and Hoey conveys this sense of collapse beautifully, often with just a facial expression or throwaway gesture. Waugh has the less potent role, but she’s a great foil for Hoey, her bewilderment and frustration at her friend’s behaviour slowly growing.
George Perrin’s production begins superbly, as a character study of two connected, yet very different, women. The reasons behind Nina’s troubles are never explicitly spelt out, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that it’s a traumatic event involving a baby that’s sent her into a tailspin. By the time she’s grabbing Nina’s pram and shaking it vigorously, the audience are starting to feel apprehensive.
It’s a shame then, that the play rather loses its way in the last 10 minutes, where the action suddenly switches to the jungle, in a rather clumsy attempt to explain Nina’s breakdown and show her ultimate fate. It’s a brave and audacious device, but feels tacked-on and the addition of a third cast member, Ben Winger, doesn’t help. Nor for that matter does the appearance of one of the actors dressed as an orangutan; the dramatic power of this scene is undercut by the uncomfortable giggles of the audience.
The play makes some pertinent points about the trauma of infant death and the lasting damage it inflicts, and it’s necessary to stress how good Hoey and Waugh are in their respective roles. But the last act of Butler’s play undoes a lot of what has gone before, sacrificing subtlety for something rather more jarring and over the top. The initial build up is however tautly written and well executed and this more than compensates.