‘One for Sorrow’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A right-on family show their hypocrisy in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in this scathing satire

Inspired by the #porteouvetre – open door – movement in the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks, Cordelia Lynn’s tense play sees a young man, fleeing a terror incident, ‘welcomed’ into an upper-middle-class home, where the family are waiting for news of a missing relative.  

Yet it’s hardly the sort of story that’d make for heartwarming headlines. Emma and Bill take pride in having taught their almost obnoxiously smart, right-on daughters – teenaged Chloe and student Imogen – to question the world and face it with compassion. But the charged presence of John, a mixed-race engineering student, soon reveals the depths of fear and unconscious prejudice among these self-styled ‘good people’.  

Lynn’s writing is funny and astute in sending up the modern manners of the middle class and skewering family dynamics – especially the eye-rolling contempt all three women have for Bill. But in James Macdonald’s icily precise production, there is also a deeply ominous atmosphere, as contemporary political paranoia plays out in a domestic setting. He keeps you on a knife-edge of disgust – at the family’s suspiciousness of John, and then at your own. The play is also served very well by Laura Hopkins’s chic design, which slow-drips into something more hellish as the family goes into meltdown.  

But while the first half is brilliantly intriguing – beginning with John’s unsettling, whispered voice-over as we sit in total darkness (‘I am coming across this city to you’) – the second struggles to do know quite what to do with itself.  

Lynn ramps up the drama in provocative ways that ultimately squander its earlier vibrating ambiguity; I simply didn’t buy the depths of Chloe’s arrogant cruelty, for example, nor an implausible act of frenzied violence. The family’s hammered-home hypocrisy is the point, of course, but it still stretches credulity that even these smug sorts could be quite so lacking in basic self-awareness. There are also several almost-endings where you wish Lynn had just snapped to blackout.  

But the writing is often striking. The failure of language itself is picked at like a scab – from woke squabbles over PC terms, to how words may be saturated with fear, to the impossibility of political change when we have no way to truly discuss it. 

The cast is superb. Sarah Woodward and Neil Dudgeon find just the right balance of parental love and terror; Kitty Archer is suitably perky as the patience-testing Chloe. Irfan Shamji has self-contained charisma as John, retaining a heavy magnetism and mystery throughout, while Pearl Chanda gives a performance of stunning detail as Imogen, capturing the contradiction between her deadpan intellectual confidence and her physical awkwardness, as she ties herself in impossible, idealistic, theoretical knots.  

‘One for Sorrow’ begins by carefully pulling on many taut, tangled threads; I just wished Lynn had resisted the temptation to yank after more dramatic unravellings.

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