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'Medea' relocated to the benefits system, unsuccessfully
Punished by politicians, caught over a barrel by the benefit system, vilified by character comedians who should know better and snap-judged by society – single mums get it in the neck in this country. With the three-child benefits cap due in 2017, and the ongoing gentrification of social housing, it’s only going to get worse.
So there’s every reason to root for this modern take on ‘Medea’, penned by rising star Phoebe Eclair-Powell (daughter of comedian Jenny) and produced by Damsel, a new company dedicated to placing complex female voices centre stage. Eclair-Powell’s anti-heroine isn’t a Greek princess but a young Londoner named Sam who grew up in care. Her ex has a Sports Direct uniform rather than a golden fleece. Her two little boys are all she has, but it’s hard to love them – especially when their cries attract social services, and the manipulative sexual attentions of the student in the flat upstairs.
There’s a Kate Tempest influence to the mashing of ancient myth with ‘gritty’ urban social issues. There’s also a modernised Greek chorus who, when not loudly declaiming Sam’s fate, hound her with contemporary pop refrains courtesy of Major Lazer and Bat For Lashes.
But a dubious plot, heavy-handed direction from Hannah Hauer-King and a badly edited script let the subject down. If there’s one thing you don’t want from new writing it’s stale similes. Here we’re informed that Sam is cracking at the edges like a splintered mirror, losing her footing like she’s slipping in quicksand. Her fury is so hot she feels like she’s burning. We are over-told simple facts (the boys’ pyjamas are ‘wet and sodden’) while complex and challenging truths – that a loving mum can also feel resentment, disgust, hate – don’t get the speech time they need.
‘Which one is the monster?’ barks the chorus as the tragedy bleeds out. ‘Him? Her? Us?’ ‘Fury’ feels no less naively didactic for being openly unsure. Sarah Ridgeway digs deep in the lead role, suggesting a youthful energy made dangerous by desperate circumstance. I believed in and cared about her Sam enough to wish she was in a better play.