Theatre review: [BLANK] by Alice Birch

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Clean Break

Running until 30 November 2019 at the Donmar Theatre


‘Blank’ is 100 largely unconnected scenes written by Alice Birch to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Clean Break, the estimable theatre company which for 40 years has ‘used theatre to transform the lives of women with experience in the criminal justice system’, including of course being in prison. The production team at the Donmar chose 30 of these scenes to enact and were free to decide the playing order. It makes for an absorbing evening (two hours without interval) but these are really snapshots, usually unconnected to a previous or subsequent scene. The cast play a number of parts. It is not a conventional play with plot or character development.

Director Maria Aberg and a brilliant cast of 14 women and two young girls rise to the occasion. Over and over again, they plunge straight in, with intense and sometimes harrowing emotion. They are assisted by a clever and highly adaptable double height set designed by Rosie Elnile.

What is powerfully brought home is a litany of what some women endure. Mental illness, infanticide, domestic violence, drug addiction and appalling parenting are all there. A drug addict tries to burgle her parents’ home and is later seen soliciting for prostitution and later still having to be fatally subdued in gaol. A vulnerable woman naively falls in love with a violent man; in due course she tries but fails to get into a refuge.

The longest sequence is ‘Dinner Party’ which involves the entire cast. They are non-victims including a police officer who arrests violent men and a lawyer who sometimes defends them. They feast on dishes like fattoush salad presumably from the Ottolenghi cook book. Cases of wine arrive (by bicycle) as does cocaine. It is 40 minutes of superb ensemble playing but it is a long time before we get to the debating point. A guest becomes more and more upset at what she sees. Finally she announces that she has just gone upstairs and urinated on her hostess’s sleeping child. She hasn’t but she has her reasons: ‘My mother did piss on me and I am fully capable of controlling my bladder. I am able not to repeat her patterns of behaviour. I am able to choose not to hurt others despite the fact that my mother effectively taught me to.’ She accuses the others of saying the right thing and being aware of what is awful, ‘in order to buy yourself the time and the life to do absolutely nothing of worth or meaning or good in the world’.

It should be a moment of moral conflict but somehow that does not quite happen. Eventually the scene terminates with what might be a child actor’s favourite role. One of the little girls comes out with a baseball bat, stands on a chair and smashes up the dinner table, fattoush salad and all.

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The Donmar is supported by their Principal Sponsor, Barclays 

Reviewer David Wurtzel

 

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.