Deborah Bruce’s The Distance examines modern attitudes to motherhood via a group of three middle-class friends in London who drink an awful lot of wine. I know what you’re thinking: White People Problems. There’s a hashtag for this kind of thing.
But there’s a lot more to Bruce’s play than its slightly cosy synopsis might suggest. It’s a very funny piece of writing, but also goes deeper than that, examining gender politics, society’s attitudes to motherhood and, by situating itself on the same night as the 2011 London riots, it also touches on the class divide. Taken together this makes for a slightly uneven if never less than engaging experience.
The play relates the story of Bea, who arrives back in London after five years of raising her family in Australia. Her two old friends from University, Kate and Alex, presume that her husband is stopping her from bringing her two young children with her, but it transpires over the course of the evening that Bea can’t cope with the stresses of motherhood – so much so that she’s started to question whether she even loves her children, and can’t even bear to communicate with them via Skype.
It’s an often viciously witty play, packed with great lines, which director Charlotte Gwinner delivers at a cracking pace. The cast (two of whom have transferred from the original Orange Tree production) are all superb, with Michelle Duncan bringing a nervy energy to the role as Bea. Charlotte Emmerson revels in some of the play’s sharpest writing as the flaky Alex; there’s also a remarkably assured performance from Joshua Sinclair-Evans, making his professional debut as Alex’s 15 year old son, Liam.
There’s also an interesting motif running through the play about ‘distance‘ – there’s the obvious geographical distance between Bea and her estranged family, but there’s also the growing gap between Bea and her friends, who, try as they might, cannot understand her motives, and then there’s the distance between this comfortable, middle-class group of friends gathered in Finsbury Park and the disaffected rioters they’re watching on their mobile phones. Even the seemingly solid marriage between Kate and her husband Dewi has its own emotional distance, with her struggling to accept his daughter from an extra-marital affair some fifteen years ago.
Taut as the writing is The Distance, it’s difficult to escape the fact that most of the characters are irritating as hell. Kate is a bossy control freak who thinks nothing about sending her best friend back to Australia without taking the trouble to really find out what her feelings on the matter are, the character of Alex is an amusing initially but her scatty nature soon proves to be annoying. Perhaps more problematically Bea feels under-explored as a character, her hinted-at depression never fully engaged with. It’s interesting that the male characters read more sympathetically: the calm and assured Dewi and his lovable stoner brother Vinny who are left to sort out the mess.
The ending too, raises more questions than it answers – ambiguity can be intriguing, exciting even, but this feels jarringly low-key given the emotional fireworks which have led up to it. Nobody seems to have changed, have learned anything, or had any of their questions answered. There’s this wonderfully unsettling scene during the second half in which Bea encourages Liam to have a drink with her – it feels vaguely predatory and a bit creepy, but it’s never built upon, it’s left to drift. I was left wishing for more moments like this.