The intentional mundanity of the setting is what initially grounds Frances Poet’s 2015 Bruntwood-shortlisted play: it gives the audience a measure of security and familiarity before the rug is pulled out from under them. Thirty-something parents Maddy and Rory sit around a suburban dining table and tell Rory’s mother Morven a holiday anecdote about invasion of space and unsolicited physical contact, which amuses all three; of Maddy stumbling into the wrong hotel room in the dark and climbing into bed with a stranger.
Things take a darker turn, however, when Morven innocently recounts how, while babysitting the couple’s three-year-old son Joshua, she had been flustered by the child’s demand to use the toilet in a supermarket café as she balanced trays and paid for their meal. Fortunately, the nice man behind her in the queue had offered to take him instead, and all was well.
The gap between generations in the room suddenly echoes like a thunderclap; where Morven saw only a sense of community and helpfulness in the gesture, Maddy and Rory are flung into a well of paranoia about what actually went on in that bathroom. Before long, they’re surreptitiously examining their child and surrendering him to the impersonal judgement of police and social services.
There’s something of a sense of the surreal about just how far Maddy falls into her own neurotic mistrust of anyone – any man – who might threaten her child, even as Rory comes to terms with his own worries, but this dynamic reflects the pressure upon a mother to be the guardian of her child’s emotional, as well as physical safety.
Yet Poet’s astute, truthful play tells us so much more than simply how it feels to bear the responsibility of being a parent, and a mother in particular. Its central incident is potentially a shocking one, but the worst-case scenario only exists in the heads of Joshua’s parents. This is a piece about fear in the 21st century, as incubated by a racing culture of sensational headlines and daily-outed monsters, and about feeling as though we’re losing control of the world around us when we’re meant to be at our most possessed and observant.
As might be expected, Zinnie Harris’ direction is sublime, stifling melodrama and focusing instead upon real, beautifully-weighted human interaction and reaction. Peter Collins and particularly Kirsty Stuart are very relatable as Rory and Maddy, while George Anton manages to fill the vast void between friendly and enigmatic as a procession of apparently kind strangers who Maddy sees only evil in. “Maddy… like Maddy McCann?”, one of them throws out on the floor with a dull clang.
Only Lorraine McIntosh feels somewhat misplaced as Morven, not because she isn’t a vibrant actor who grasps her role firmly, but simply because she seems too young for a character whose lack of suspicion is a relic of a different generation.
Gut is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until May 12th. For more details, click here.