Hampstead Theatre, London
To his great credit, Ed Hall has staged an unusually high number of plays by women at his Hampstead hideaway, albeit the majorityfrom over the Big Pond than home-grown.
Rebecca Gilman has long been a favourite here. She had a rare old run of plays at the Royal Court a few years ago one of which, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball reunited the then X-Files mega tv star Gillian Anderson with theatre audiences.
Gilman loves to dig around in the American psyche exposing its moral cracks to public view. Maybe that’s the Miller (Arthur) legacy. Or the worth of any good playwright. In the past, Gilman has dealt with the pressures on artists to succeed (Baseball), racism in the white ivy-league (Spinning into Butter) and this time tackles child protection and social workers.
Heaven knows, the latter’s reputation here has been torn to shreds in recent years. Gilman’s social worker is, typically, hard-working, conscientious, very, very caring. And compromised.
It’s hard to speculate how many social workers take up social work because of personal family blips. Certainly, in my experience, a good case could be made out for the number of psychiatrists who take on the psychiatric robe because of the desire to solve some of their own mental torments. But that’s another story…
Gilman makes her central protagonist, Caroline – a fine performance from Sharon Small – sympathetic in her moral probity but flawed, as if she is the only one standing out for integrity in a society influenced if not dominated by Christian values.
Gilman writes with compassion but her structure on this occasion is fabricated upon increasingly biased and heavily loaded material. Problematically Caroline has her own baggage which (perhaps unconsciously as written by Gilman) she brings to bear on a case of two young drug addicts whose lifestyle is putting their young baby daughter, Luna Gale’s life and their custody of her in jeopardy.
If Gilman is suggesting that social workers have human failings, it’s a fair point. But in a dramatic context, ultimately it puts the whole question of Caroline’s credibility in question. Then again, that may also be part of Gilman’s intention. Each of her characters carries inbuilt flaws. Systems are only as good as the individuals running them and as such, as vulnerable to their human frailties.
Slowly, indeed somewhat pedantically, Gilman builds up a rounded picture of those involved: Karlie and Peter (Rachel Redford and Alexander Arnold), the young parents and Karlie’s mother Cindy (Caroline Faber) whose evangelical beliefs increasingly come into view. As do those of Caroline’s administrative superior, Cliff (Ed Hughes) – agewise her junior – and Cindy’s pastor, Pastor Jay (Corey Johnson).
Revelations come pouring out in the sparkier second half and Michael Attenborough, returning to the theatre he ran for five years, turns in a typically watchable production handsomely designed by Lucy Osborne in a set wreathed in box files – a reminder of social workers’ constantly punishing workload of case history after case history.
`They keep on coming’, says a despairing Caroline by the end. Gilman clearly has her central protagonist’s best interests at heart as does Caroline for all those who come under her scrutiny. Anxious to show the complexity of motivations and instincts at work in the best of professionals, Gilman has produced a heavy-handed but sympathetic account that may resonate with British social workers whilst perhaps finding certain practises questionable.
In the end, it’s a play as much indicting the pernicious effects of American Christian evangelism as it is highlighting the impossible task of child protection. From that perspective, fascinating.
Luna Gale is at Hampstead Theatre to July 18, 2015
First published in London Grip, June 2015