Almost exactly a year ago I reviewed Abigail Hood’s previous play, Dangling, part of which was adapted and extended to into Spiral. Which makes this a rare treat for a reviewer: the chance to see how a creative team’s ideas have evolved, while fantasising that not only did they read my review, but took my comments on board. If critics are like eunuchs in a harem, this was some kind of virtual reality pornography for my eunuch mind.
My main issue with Dangling was that it interwove two stories that struggled to coexist. One was about the return of an abusive father from prison, and built around a horrifying and powerfully written and performed rape scene. The other, while also full of tragedy, ended up feeling like an emotional salve to the horrors of the first story.
It’s the second of these that Hood, I think wisely, has chosen to expand upon. Adam Morris and Tracey Wilkinson play Tom and Gill, parents whose 16-year old daughter, Sophie, disappeared months previously. At the start of the action, Tom visits Leah (played by the writer), an escort that we learn bears a resemblance to Sophie. Tom has her dress up as a schoolgirl and act out apparently innocuous scenes as a way of processing his loss.
As the story progresses, they strike up a close friendship, with Tom filling the role of Leah’s father, who moved away years before and never came back. But trouble is ahead: Tom gets accused of inappropriate behaviour at the school at which he works, while Leah’s violent boyfriend – and effectively her pimp – Mark (Kevin Tomlinson) exhibits more and more possessive behaviour.
There’s no doubt at all that this story benefits from being given room to breath: it has enough ideas, without letting the desire to talk about grand themes overwhelm the individual characters’ storylines. But having the one narrative fill the whole 100 minutes or so of stage time also made me less forgiving of Hood’s writing, and there are some niggles that have continued to niggle away.
The big problem is the character of Tom, who deserves to be so much more complex and interesting than his portrayal here. The fact that he tracks down an escort to play-act as his missing teenage daughter is fascinating – but we get very little insight into what’s actually going on in his mind. Standard formulas tell us that a character in this situation should be falling apart; it’s great that Hood has avoided this cliché, but Tom almost goes to the other extreme: he’s so in control and on top of his emotions that his character becomes less and less believable as the play goes on.
Then there’s the ‘accusation’ plot element, in which a group of teenage girls report Tom for touching and kissing them, leading to his suspension from work and a threat of criminal charges. This ought to create tension around Tom’s fundamental nature, but though it leads Gill to doubt who her husband is, it has little impact on Tom himself.
This is a problem for two reasons. First, it means there is never really any doubt that Tom is innocent – his portrayal is so straightforwardly sympathetic that if he did turn out to be guilty, it would be a twist of ludicrous proportions, completely out of keeping with the play. Second, no real explanation is given for why the girls accused him: they merely withdraw their accusation with little ceremony. And that’s a dangerous story to tell, because it suggests that teeangers willingly make up serious allegations.
I’d also like to hear more about the missing Sophie: I didn’t pick up any clues as to what happened to her, which made her feel like something of a prop to the story. Spiral has a great premise, but bites off more than it’s really able to chew.
Spiral is on at Park Theatre until 1 September 2018. Click here for more information.