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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Knot of the Heart
Almeida Theatre    Spring 2011

David Eldridge practically challenges any reviewer to avoid the word 'harrowing' in discussing his new drama, charting as it does the descent of a well-off professional woman into heroin addiction.

A popular TV presenter, she begins with an occasional snort in her dressing room, but by Scene Two is shooting up and by Scene Three is being resuscitated in A&E, and she ends the act with her first trip to rehab. Act Two follows the tentative and uneven voyage upward to an always fragile recovery.

But this is no mere documentary, and Eldridge’s real interest is in what goes on around the addiction, particularly the addict’s relations with her loving mother and wary sister.

That the addict is dishonest, emotionally manipulative and almost ferally aware of her prey’s vulnerabilities is not surprising, though Eldridge shows her playing them mercilessly in a couple of particularly uncomfortable scenes.

What is new, shocking and totally believable is the way they play her, and the way their emotional needs and neuroses enable her addiction and threaten her recovery.

The mother, more than a bit of an alcoholic herself, has her own motives for denying the extent of her daughter’s danger. In the very first scene she actually helps her daughter light up, convincing herself it’s just a harmless relaxation, like her own ever-present glass of wine.

She takes the full-blown heroin addict into her home, pays for her drugs and even goes out to buy them for her, in order to keep her daughter off the streets.

But at the same time, we realise, she is infantilising the grown woman, keeping her dependent because she, the mother, needs to play Mommy more than she needs her daughter’s recovery.

The cool, practical sister is not so easily taken in, but her moral superiority is somewhat undercut when we realise she is acting out childhood resentments of Mommy’s favourite, and the line between tough love and vindictive cruelty proves difficult for her to distinguish. 

Of course there is a Big Family Secret, which turns out to be not quite as overpowering when told as it was when hidden, though it does - perhaps a bit too neatly - explain some of the family dynamics.

In a programme note, Eldridge says that among his motivations in writing the play were the desire to create a strong female character not defined by her relationship with a man, and to provide a good role for actress Lisa Dillon, and he has certainly succeeded in both aims.

He makes the central character believably eloquent and clear-headed enough to be able to explain her experience as she has it, verbalising both the attractions and horrors of addiction, and then, particularly movingly, the newly-discovered priorities that guide her through her rocky recovery.

(A minor weakness of the play is that Eldridge has to create a couple of encounters, such as one with a shrink, that are too obviously just occasions to let the woman say out loud what she’s feeling.)

Almost never offstage, Lisa Dillon chillingly conveys the intensity, intelligence and extreme emotional fragility of the woman, and is particularly moving as this all-but-destroyed psyche fights her way back to something resembling health.

In the very last seconds of the play she answers a question about her feelings by saying she is ’content’, her flickering eyes making clear that that does not necessarily mean ’confident’.

As strong as Dillon’s performance is, I would give acting honours here to Margot Leicester as the mother, precisely because the character is never as self-aware as Dillon’s, and so the actress has to show us things her character doesn’t know.

She does this so sensitively that, for all the woman’s role as enabler and therefore potential destroyer of both her children, you may well find yourself sympathetic toward one who honestly thinks she’s being unselfish and loving.

The sister is really more of a plot device than a fully-drawn character, but Abigail Cruttenden shows us all her complexities and makes them convincingly part of a unified and sympathetic person.

Sophie Stanton as a supportive counsellor and Kieran Bow as a string of characters ranging from pusher to psychologist provide solid backing.

It should be obvious, but needs to be said, that when an entire cast embody and present their characters so beautifully, much of the credit must go to director Michael Attenborough, adding another to his long list of successes at this theatre.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Knot Of The Heart - Almeida Theatre 2011

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