It’s not particularly unusual to see characters playing cards on stage but what is immediately distinctive about Louise Monaghan’s Pack – part of the Papatango New Writing Festival at the Finborough – is that all the players are women and they are not playing for money. They are learning to play bridge at a local community centre in Leeds (on the edge of a well-to-do area). The course, which provides the structure for the play and takes place over several months in the same location, is taught by school-teacher Dianna (Denise Black).
The play begins as two old friends Stephie (Sarah Smart) and Deb (Angela Lonsdale) turn up for the second week of the course, both are white and from working class backgrounds. While Steph works at Tesco’s, Deb has come into money for reasons that are revealed as the play goes on. They are joined by a third student, Nasreen (Amita Dhiri), an Asian middle-class doctor and a neighbour of Deb’s (who insists she has never seen her). The three of them settle down to learn to play bridge and there’s already a tension in the air, with Deb instantly antagonistic towards Nasreen while Stephie is all wide-eyed well-meaning innocence and self-deprecation and Dianna has some trouble adjusting to the idea of treating these women like adults (it emerges that she is the Maths teacher at the local comp where Stephie’s son Jack is a nerdy Maths prodigy).
Pack very much revolves around the racial and social identities of the characters and their prejudices about each other along social and racial lines. The bridge classes become a kind of sanctuary from the increasingly violent outside world but, of course, the confusion and aggression of that world necessarily bleeds in to their relationships. For Deb and Stephie, it’s soon clear that all they do revolves around the men in their lives and they have almost no lives outside of their functions as mothers and wives. Nasreen and Dianna are significantly more independent and they encourage Stephie to forge an independent life for herself away from her overbearing, possibly abusive, racist husband Simon.
The play relies heavily on revelations about the behaviour of Stephie and Deb’s sons in particular so I won’t include any spoilers here. At its emotional heart seems to be the question of what love can overcome and what we can forgive in a spouse, a son or daughter. The relationships between the different women as they develop through the narrative also ask interesting questions about our assumptions about others and Angela Lonsdale captures Deb’s territorial nature over Stephie extremely well.
Pack has all the ingredients of a really gripping piece of fraught, emotional drama and Monaghan does everything she can to keep the stakes high. Unfortunately though, the Bridge lessons increasingly become simply an excuse to get the characters all together in the room and this feels like a missed opportunity. Any attempt to play tends to be interrupted by a phone call or someone bursting in with some information from the outside world. Monaghan doesn’t find a way of imbuing the action of the game itself with dramatic high stakes and it therefore remains a distraction from the dramatic action.
Without the crutch of having actual financial implications in the act of losing, Monaghan needs to find another way of connecting the game with the drama and this isn’t something that she quite manages to pull off; it comes to feel like she’s lost control of what is a very promising conceit. The exposition-revelation scene structure starts to become repetitive and predictable and this isn’t something that Louise Hill’s production ever really manages to overcome despite excellent performances from the cast.
For all the play’s emotional heart, it feels as if it pulls its punches where it really matters and never really tests these women’s convictions as it might have done. It’s evident that Monaghan is a playwright with plenty of potential and an ambition to tell big stories about contemporary Britain so I hope she can be bolder and braver in future.