The voice we hear as we enter The Shed for debbie tucker green’s new play is that of David Dickinson on Antiques Roadshow, a low mumble. This sets the tone of the piece, which poetically paints the life of two women against a background of the bleak everyday.
Elayne is on the brink of a break down and her sister is in the midst of divorce; their lives are shown to us in a triptych of scenes, which are atmospheric, if light on action. In the opening scene two women bicker hilariously about who will have the most successful funeral, while one paints her toenails and one makes tea. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Nadine Marshall, as Elayne and Sophie Stanton, as her friend Aimee, keep it lighthearted at first. But slowly we start to lose our grip – something does not make sense, something far darker is occurring: the talk of funerals is not just talk, but genuine speculation. What makes this scene at once difficult and compelling, is the way in which the poetic language merges everyday chit-chat with something much sharper and darker.
In the second scene we meet Ex-Wife and Ex-Husband. Again, green seamlessly mixes humour and poetry with a dark subtext in a way which makes a seemingly simple conversation painfully tense. Sharlene Whyte amd Gershwyn Eustache Jr achieve just the right balance between awkwardness, competition, and lingering tenderness. The parted couple bond over their guilty love of cigarettes, but touching though this rediscovered common ground is, the smoke from the cigarettes visually blurs the scene, so that the messiness of their relationship seems to hang there, ignored.
Emma Laxton’s sound design knits quizzes with antiques and gardening between scenes. Though this creates an atmosphere of familiarity, it also generates unease, something which is followed through with a hum running under all the dialogue, feeding the darkness in the language. Lisa Marie Hall’s set, similarly, is all normalcy at floor level, but moves up into a mess of industrial metal, which forms a 3D scribble above the heads of the actors; they use this metallic tangle to hang coats on, cleverly showing their acceptance of the mess.
The final scene puts the sisters on stage together. Elayne comments on her sister’s troubled divorce, while Ex-Wife moans about Elayne’s self-harming; the sister’s difficult relationship is mirrored in their clashing dialogue. This scene jars stylistically with the last two; while the rest of the play creates an uncomfortable tension through discussions of the seemingly everyday and unimportant, when the characters are more directly explored, that tension is lost slightly. What is revealed of Elayne is truly moving, but it’s not enough of a revelation to be satisfying. The play seems to be attempting to say and do two separate things – to be both a domestic drama and a broader commentary on contemporary life – and not quite achieving either completely.
green’s play uses dialogue to explore the many forms human relationships can take, creating a collage of the bleak everyday, from hard-to-kick habits to daytime TV. The considerable atmosphere generated in the earlier scenes, however, evaporates in the final moments, breaking the tension, and ending things in a way that feels unsatisfactory.