What do you call a game of aggressive oneupmanship when you and a friend are planning your funerals? Hiss and Hearse? Whatever its title, that’s the game that Elayne and Aimee are playing when the lights go up on Debbie Tucker Green’s latest play, at the National’s Shed (the venue just awarded this year’s Empty Space prize). Tucker Green’s taut poetic works have been stirring up a storm at the Royal Court for more than a decade, dealing with subjects ranging from AIDS to inner city violence. Here she tackles similarly challenging issues, including mental illness, with a style that’s almost intravenous – it seems elliptical, unflashy, until you realise that the characters have slipped under your skin.
Tucker Green’s beautifully measured production is made particularly distinctive by Lisa Marie Hall’s ingenious set. Suspended metal bars curve above the stage like a giant spine, supporting household objects – like tables and chairs – but also looking a little like an adult climbing frame. It foreshadows the sly, playful tone that Tucker Green uses to probe the problems of the central character, Nadine Marshall’s Elayne. As she plans her funeral, Elayne comes across as a youthful middle-aged woman who is perfectly healthy – but even as she engages in the mess and banter of her day-to-day life, the sense of her desire to withdraw from the world becomes stronger.
Gradually we see how her depression impacts on the other characters. They tease and engage with her, at the same time watching over her as if she were a bomb that might explode at any time. ‘People get confused,’ declares Devon of the fact that her front door bell doesn’t work. ‘If you had an outward view, a curiosity, a natural curiosity like normal people… you would have a bell.’ It’s a beautiful, simple metaphor for Elayne’s refusal to engage with the outside world. Yet what’s going on with Elayne isn’t beautiful and simple at all, and the physical manifestations of this soon become clear.
This is Tucker Green’s first work for the National, and though slight at 70 minutes, its understated power is remarkable. The performances have an almost organic quality – provocative, touching, darkly humorous. Zac Fitzgerald’s debut as the young Trey is just one of the highlights. Intimate and dynamic – you will think of it for days afterwards.
By Rachel Halliburton