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 The Theatreguide.London Review

One For Sorrow
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs   Summer 2018

Cordelia Lynn's new play is dressed up in very contemporary geopolitical clothes, but it has something more personal, psychological and timeless to say. And despite some wobbles of focus and tone, it says it effectively and chillingly. 

In 1966 Edward Albee wrote A Delicate Balance, about a family whose structure of compromises and mutual accommodations proved unexpectedly fragile when an external element (some old friends come to stay) upset the equilibrium. 

One For Sorrow is set in a world of terrorists and bombings and 24 hour TV news and cellphones and hashtags and feminism and political correctness, and the outside element is not an old friend but a stranger of another ethnic group. 

But the ultimate discovery is the same – a seemingly safe and functional family is living considerably closer to the edge of chaos and despair than they realised. 

An unnamed British city has been struck by terrorists. Bombs have gone off and more are expected, police helicopters buzz overhead, and no one not at home can be presumed to be safe. 

The adult daughter of a comfortable, liberal family – there's also her teenage sister – has joined a hashtag circle inviting anyone caught in the disorder to seek refuge with them, and an apparently Middle Eastern young man arrives at their door. 

Their reactions to him and to what's going on outside reveal deep fault lines in both their liberalism and their confidence in their values and beliefs. 

The play opens as almost a social comedy, with gentle satire of the parents and daughters constantly tripping over themselves in the attempt to be Politically Correct when each of them has different definitions of what is PC, and exposing unrealised prejudices and assumptions while criticising each other's prejudices and assumptions. 

The outsider upsets them in part because they're never sure if he is victim or terrorist, but mainly just because he is Other, so clearly not sharing their experience and values that he makes them realise how much they have assumed their experience and values to be unquestionable. 

How open and unselfish can they believe themselves if they've never been tested, how secure are their beliefs in the essential goodness (or badness) of humanity, and indeed how much right do they have to any of the positions they debated so blithely in the opening scenes when those were all such purely academic issues their comfortable lives had protected them from ever having to really think about? 

The question of the man's identity and guilt or innocence turns out to be a total red herring, and one of the play's weaknesses, as the true subject is the family's discovery of how little they have to be sure of. 

To the extent that the play keeps shifting tones and getting distracted by secondary issues, director James Macdonald has difficulty keeping it from flying apart in several directions, and both the pacing and focus flag as it runs on perhaps twenty minutes longer than would be ideal. 

But he does lead his cast, two of them in particular, to fully-realised explorations of their characters' traumatic emotional journeys. 

Pearl Chanda carries much of the play's emotional arc as the older sister, the one who invited the stranger in and who most quickly begins to sense that he brings uncertainties with which they may not be able to cope. And she is the one who is most shaken, as layer after layer of belief and confidence is stripped from her. 

This forces some extreme changes in thought and abrupt passionate outbursts on the character, and Chanda admirably convinces us that they are all part of the same person fighting total disintegration. 

The younger sister is a charming creation, made up of equal parts of precociousness and puerility, surprising wisdom and adolescent boneheadedness. 

Newcomer Kitty Archer not only reconciles the self-contradictions but shows us an underlying solidity of personality that may make the girl the most likely to survive the adventure intact. 

The roles of the parents are badly underwritten, and perhaps in awareness of this, the playwright shoos them offstage as much as possible, but Sarah Woodward and Neil Dudgeon make the most of what they've been given to work with. 

Least adequately served by the playwright is the role of the outsider, since Irfan Shamji is stuck with too many lines and actions clearly written in just to keep us distracted by the false issue of whether he's a terrorist rather than growing out of the character, and has to devote too much energy to being enigmatic to be much of anything else.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - One For Sorrow - Royal Court Theatre 2018  
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