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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Donmar Warehouse Theatre  Autumn 2019

[BLANK} is a doubly collaborative work. It is the latest in a string of co-productions between the Donmar Theatre and Clean Break, the theatre company giving voice to women currently or formerly in prison. And it is written to be collaborative in construction.

Playwright Alice Birch has written one hundred scenes, inviting any directors to choose as many as they want from among them and perform them in any order they choose.

For this Donmar production director Maria Aberg has selected thirty and staged them in an order different from their placement in the printed text. (The first few are numbers 57, 54, 40, 52, 92 and so on.)

Another production might well have an entirely different selection and therefore be an entirely different play.

Almost all of the scenes in this selection deal with women on or near the criminal fringes of society.

A drug addict breaks into her mother's home demanding money. A social worker checks that a streetwalker is all right. A young mother driven mad by exhaustion confesses to killing her children. An abused woman is turned away from an overfull shelter.

Unsurprisingly most of the scenes have a dark tone, a noteworthy exception being a foster mother (or keeper of a care home) recalling her success stories.

A separate pattern also arises in this selection, possibly reflecting the choices of Maria Aberg more than the playwright, as many of the scenes show conflicts between mothers and adult daughters, one or the other blaming the other for all her woes.

And then about three-quarters of the way through comes the longest and best-written of the scenes.

The setting is a dinner party of friends, all professional women who work in one way or another with the sorts of women featured in the other scenes a social worker, a lawyer, a cop, a psychologist, and so on.

While sharing the white wine, hummus and cocaine they congratulate themselves on being not only Politically Correct but demonstrably Good People who do Good Works, support Good Causes and generally think, act and behave in all the right ways.

And then a newcomer to the group rips into them, calling them a bunch of smug, privileged, protected, self-satisfied, self-deluding, ineffectual and irrelevant liberal wankers.

She's right, of course, and what is even more striking than her demolition of them is our inescapable realisation that the whole play is written and produced from the same safe and easy self-congratulatory liberal point of view.

And then the play goes on for another few scenes as if nothing had happened.

It is hard to decide whether to be impressed by Alice Birch's startling flash of self-awareness or to be puzzled by the fact that it seems to have no effect.

At its best [BLANK] is a collage of individual moments that don't really hang together. At its worst it seems to undercut itself completely.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - [BLANK] - Donmar Warehouse Theatre 2019
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