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THE DISTANCE – Orange Tree Theatre, London.

Production photographs for The Distance by Deborah Bruce, directed by Charlotte Gwinner for Orange Tree Theatre, October 2014

Photo by Helen Warner

When A Doll’s House premiered in 1879, actress Hedwig Niemann-Raabe refused to perform Ibsen’s ending as written, declaring: “I would never leave my children!” While Helen Baxendale can and does inhabit a similarly divisive role without complaint, that particular action has not lost its power to shock, discomfit and inspire impassioned debate – both on- and offstage – as proved by director-turned-writer Deborah Bruce’s dynamic, sharply funny work, the second piece in new Orange Tree artistic director Paul Miller’s promising opening season.

The Distance, shortlisted for the 2012/13 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, shares thematic ground with Bruce’s debut Godchild, though demonstrates a far greater facility for constructing riveting conflict, juxtaposing tones and evoking a believably messy reality. There are still jarring notes – two strained framing scenes slip into a chasm between plausibility and profundity, and there’s an overabundance of heavy-handed symbolism – but Bruce’s crackling, multi-way disputes consistently impress, deepening over the course of her crisp two-hour piece.

The catalyst for these spats is the appearance of Bea (Baxendale), who’s left her husband (Timothy Knightley) and returned from Australia without her young children. Bea’s long-term friends Kate (Clare Lawrence-Moody) – hosting the crisis summit at her immaculate Sussex enclave – and Alex (Emma Beattie) assume she’s locked in a vicious custody battle and resolve to help, unable to grasp the idea that the separation from her kids might be voluntary. Their response is complicated by Kate and husband Dewi’s (Daniel Hawksford) fraught parenting history, and the fact that Alex’s 15-year-old son Liam (Bill Milner) has grown up without a father.

Bruce lends considerable weight and emotional intricacy to what might otherwise be overly schematic viewpoints, and Charlotte Gwinner’s thoughtful delivery allows room for reflection between the furious, lightning-fast exchanges. Both play and production demonstrate shrewd judgement in leavening sentiment with wit and tackling hot-button issues without devolving into soapy melodrama; though the situation is necessarily heightened, it never strays too far from naturalism.

Most affecting is Bea’s desolate admission that she lacks maternal instinct – a confession that provokes immediate judgement, cautious sympathy and not a little panic. Baxendale is heartrendingly expressive in stillness, though ultimately somewhat ill-served by a role that strongly defines what Bea is not, but never really asks what she is, or aspires to be. That lack of individual identity and clear motivation, though a good illustration of her current predicament, contributes to a slightly muddy climax.

The subplots are also rushed to hasty (and, in one case, irritatingly tidy) conclusions, but there’s plenty to relish en route. Lawrence-Moody vividly conveys Kate’s passionate adherence to the status quo and the controlling mania that envelops her when it’s threatened, ably supported by Hawksford’s hen-pecked former rock star and Oliver Ryan as Dewi’s disreputable – but surprisingly observant – brother Vinnie. Bruce brilliantly skewers their largely middle-class anxieties and foibles without ever sacrificing compassion for her characters.

Beattie’s wonderfully dippy stoner is occasionally too broad, but her false brightness when covering worry that Liam has been caught up in the London riots – which offer an effectively unsettling backdrop – is a superb distillation of parental fear. Milner, similarly, offers predictable but entertaining comic commentary on his relationship with his mum (more in Bruce’s voice than Liam’s), and then a glimmer of exquisitely poignant yearning that lingers long after he’s left the stage.

This is a perceptive if imperfect examination of an enduring taboo, as well as a fascinating discussion of friendship – which, like parenthood, can be as much censure as nurture. Bruce asks big questions about responsibility, desire, sacrifice and instinct without preaching or pontificating, and The Distance is that rare drama with meaty, complex roles for both sexes. It may sound modest in its aims compared with self-proclaimed state-of-the-nation plays, but by focussing on the minutiae of domestic life, Bruce offers significant insight into contemporary society. An empathetic gem.

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Reviewed 10/10/14/

By Marianka Swain

8th October – 8th November 2014
Orange Tree Theatre, London, TW9.

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