|Helen Baxendale in The Distance (Photo: Helen Warner)|
Attitudes to parenthood get probed in The Distance, the entertaining new play from Deborah Bruce, in which a forty-something mother of two, Bea, returns to Sussex from Australia having left a marriage that hasn’t worked out. In doing so, Bea has also left - or, in one of the play’s loaded keywords, “abandoned” - her children, a decision that the friends she reunites with, Alex and Kate, find hard to understand. Over the course of a couple of days, with the 2011 London Riots causing much consternation (especially for Alex, whose son is in the city), the women and their assorted intimates assess the fallout of Bea’s actions and what the future might hold.
Paul Miller opened his inaugural season as Artistic Director of the Orange Tree last month with a fine revival of D.H. Lawrence’s The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, a play about a women desiring, but failing, to leave her husband. He follows it with a play in which the female protagonist accomplishes that aim. As such, one might view The Distance as a contemporary variant on A Doll’s House set after that famous slamming of the door.
The play doesn’t manage to match the emotional impact of those forebears: it offers the joke-strewn, slightly trivialising approach to weighty issues that’s prevalent in contemporary British drama, rather than any real attempt to duplicate Ibsenite moral seriousness. But at its best it’s a sharply observed and often very funny piece that’s quite perceptive in its explorations of motherhood and friendship. As Bea’s friends question her conduct, and as she in turn questions what their friendship means, the play branches out into a variety of perspectives.
Sometimes the questions are posed a bit baldly; there are contrivances here. But what I admire about Bruce’s writing is how evenly its sympathies are distributed. The arch control freak Kate seems to be the play’s villain for a while, but that perception is gradually nuanced as we learn more about the character, especially in a wonderful late scene between her and her spouse, Dewi (Daniel Hawksford).
Charlotte Gwinner’s animated production finds the play’s strengths, and feels fully inhabited by the cast who create interesting, believable dynamics. Returning to the stage after an absence, Helen Baxendale delivers a subtly shaded performance that gradually reveals Bea’s sense of her inadequacies as a wife and mother, and the reasons for her escape. Emma Beattie is very funny as the slightly out-of-it Alex, and Clare Lawrence-Moody spot-on as Kate. And though Timothy Knightley is underused as the fled-from spouse, excellent young Bill Millner maximises his second act arrival as Alex’s fretted-over son teenage Liam, with some supremely dry delivery and one of the production’s funniest moments.
Some may feel that the play wimps out by not really resolving Bea’s decision satisfactorily. Indeed, the piece feels no more “resolved” than life itself. But at the coda Bruce beautifully brings the drama full circle for a poignant and touching finale.
Booking until 8 November. Further information at the Orange Tree website.