The Papatango Playwriting Prize’s history is a short but illustrious one. Amid the cacophonous din of Awards and Prizes that whip up flurries of submissions every year, the Papatango’s alumni boasts a particularly high standard. Winners such as Dawn King and Dominic Mitchell have gone on to achieve bursaries, BAFTAs and beyond, and with this year’s number of entries climbing higher than ever, it was with exquisite anticipation that I awaited the arrival of Matt Grinter’s newly-crowned play, Orca.
And I must admit, it is a beautifully sculpted thing. Set in a fictional fishing village where each year a young girl is chosen to sail with the fishing boats and bless the waters – with violent consequences – Orca sets its sights on the horror of silent complicity. In a smooth ninety minutes, Grinter carefully constructs a world as soaked in myth and ritual as it is with salt water, and we are folded into its rhythms and expectations completely. Frankie Bradshaw’s beautifully barnacled design helps – this is the kind of production that you leave with salt on your tongue and sand inevitably in your shoes.
There are some excellent turns, particularly from the young girls entangled in the myth in question: Rona Morison gives a measured and dignified performance as Maggie, the older sister who has been out on those waters before, in turns tender and seething, broken and sharp, while Carla Langley’s Fan is the precise opposite, wide-eyed and sweet, bubbling over with tragic enthusiasm. As the silence comes close to deafening, it’s a joy to watch these two collide on stage in the throes of a violent, almost destructive kind of love.
Aden Gillett’s patriarch, known only as ‘The Father’, offers the malevolent mix of warmth and authority that harks back to the priests and TV hosts that abused their power and position with abandon, and more recently, to Donald Trump’s frightening brand of undisguised, undisputed threat. Silence is key to this threat, something Gillett and director Alice Hamilton know all too well. It’s in these silences that dread is cultivated, like a particularly stubborn weed.
And while the craft of Orca is a thing to be admired, there is a simplicity to the metaphor that disappoints. It’s a cruel thing to admit, but for an Irish Catholic like myself, the revelation that men in positions of authority will abuse their power and exploit the vulnerable is not new information. The revelation of what happens to young girls out on those black waters is nothing unexpected. The rumblings of the village, somewhere offstage, the same kind of mass ignorance that allowed the Catholic Church and BBC child sex abuse scandals to go as far as they did, that’s the more interesting story. For all the craft, the sea salt and the crashing waves, the most fascinating element of Orca’s story feels lost amid the silence.
Orca is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 26th November 2016. Click here for more details.