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Review – Blackbird – Royal Court Studio

BEX Culshaw of Roots Theatre has wanted to produce David Harrower’s Olivier Award winning play Blackbird ever since she first read it and has waited a long time to secure the performance rights. When the pandemic stalled her original opening in 2020 there was no way she was going to lose the opportunity to bring the piece to a Liverpool audience, so despite being beset by various obstacles, including a last minute cast change, she has persevered to reach this run in the Royal Court’s studio theatre.

Fifteen years prior to the beginning of the play, Ray had a sexual relationship with Una. He was about 35 and she was 12. When this was discovered, Ray was convicted of statutory rape. Since his release he has changed his name, relocated and has a new life and career. Now Una has recognised his face in a magazine photograph and has come to find him, turning up unannounced at his workplace.

Over the 80 minutes or so of the play’s span, the two talk over the events of the three months that changed both their lives forever. Una seems unclear even in herself about why she wanted this confrontation, but it is clear that they both need to understand what happened between them if they are ever going to heal their emotional scars and move on. At the time it seems that she thought it was a whirlwind romance, and Ray appears to have been almost powerless to resist, but was that because he was beguiled by her, or was it because he has an unnatural attraction to very young girls? It is extraordinary how the writing pulls the audience in opposing directions at once, finding both sympathy and repulsion for both characters. At no point does the author ever make it clear that it was either Ray or Una who took the lead down this road, leaving it to the audience to decide how they feel. The ultimate outcome is that we see just how difficult it is to establish the truth, when even the parties involved don’t know what drove them there. What is very clear is that the workings of the justice system often fail miserably in dealing with the harm, frequently causing more damage than they repair.

In addition to the powerful and ambiguous treatment of the subject matter, Harrower’s writing is extraordinarily complex, with lines of dialogue from the two lead characters overlapping frequently. Culshaw, playing Una and Duncan Ross (who performs script in hand having stepped in to cover for the indisposed Nick Bagnall) both deliver spectacular performances. They surge forward at times in a torrent of words and at others allow the silence to speak for them. In a pivotal section of the play Una has a monologue that occupies nine and a half pages of unbroken solo text, in which she describes the events of the final night on which the affair spiralled to its end. Here Culshaw is simply extraordinary, and after this speech the dialogue becomes more conciliatory. At one stage there is a deeply uncomfortable feeling that they may be about to rekindle a mutual affection, but then a third character drops like a depth charge into the action as we approach the chilling closing scene.

Bagnall and Sasha Georgette co-direct, and maintain the uncanny balance that refuses to reach a conclusion for us. The strength of the play is its ability to set out the story without telling the audience what to think about it. The strength of this production is in the thoughtful performances which trust the writer’s belief that an audience don’t need their hand holding in order to understand the message.

Star rating: 5 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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