While procrastinating on writing this review, I came across a tweet that said, ‘Kids are known unknowns. You know they’ll get into trouble, you just don’t know what it’ll be’. Which did feel like a sign from some faintly disapproving and judgmental god to get to work, because that would be a very apt tagline for Sam Potter’s new play Hanna, written during her year as Papatango’s writer in residence, and now premiering at the Arcola.
When Sophie Khan Levy enters as the titular Hanna and takes a seat, fidgeting slightly and looking out at the audience with a slightly shy smile, and starts to explain how people always ask her if it would have been easier if she’d known about her daughter sooner… it seems like the play’s path forward is clear. I braced myself for a story about hospitals and diagnoses, about fear and parental love and probably some kind of loss. It’s a play about kids, right? You know there’s going to be trouble, you just don’t know what it’ll be. In the case of Hanna, it’s not what you expect.
Well, it might be what you expect, since the Arcola gives away the major plot twist on the back of the playscript and on the website. But if you haven’t read it already, I recommend that you don’t, in order to appreciate how well Potter builds suspense without seeming irritatingly evasive – not an easy balance to strike when the play is a one-woman monologue.
She manages this thanks to her skill with chatty, fun dialogue and natural-feeling diversions and digressions, which are supported in turn by Levy’s charming, engaging performance. Levy finds ease in Hanna’s awkwardness, and keeps the lines sounding natural without dropping into mumbling or monotony.
Hanna is, in her own words, normal. She’s not very assertive, not dazzlingly clever. She seems, at first, relentlessly conciliatory – everything is fine, just fine. She has no regrets. She understands where her pushy mother is coming from. She doesn’t like confrontation. But as the play goes on, Levy and Potter slowly peel back the layers of Hanna’s mildness, and the glimpses of anger and resentment and self-loathing that bubble up are startling at first, and very real. Our intimacy with her grows subtly and gradually, as we nestle closer to her heart and deeper into her mind, leading at last to a surreal and tense midnight drive that pays off because Potter and Levy have drawn us in so close.
After veering into unexpectedly dark and messy waters, the play pulls sharply back, and ends on a pat, easy note that does not do justice to the complex and intriguing work by both writer and actor that came before. Potter hints at deeper social and cultural depths than the show’s 75 minutes and one-woman format quite give her time to plumb. But as character study, it’s compelling and rich.
Hanna is on at the Arcola until 20 January 2018. Click here for more details.