It often takes one misfortune to expose a multitude of other problems simmering beneath a veneer of peace and quiet. This is one of the lessons in Deborah Bruce’s chaotic drama The Distance, which the MTC is running from 5 March to 9 April at the Southbank theatre.
With the 2011 London riots as an historical backdrop, Bruce’s play is a spiritual successor to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: protagonist Bea (Susan Prior) has just left her husband and children in Melbourne and she’s now in Heathrow at her friend Kate’s house, where another old friend Alex (Katrina Milosevic) is also staying. At first, Bea seems a little coolly detached from the gravitas of her decision and her controlling friend Kate (Nadine Garner) insists she acknowledge it. As the play progresses however, Bea’s real feelings come to the surface. As a consequence, other skeletons are wrenched from closets and thrown on the living room floor.
Beginning with the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011, the riots in London erupted in several boroughs in the city as looting, arson and vandalism spread like a socially contagious disease. Duggan’s death resulted in riots and violent protests against racism, police brutality and classism. In the play, the riots are acknowledged in conversation, as Kate’s Husband Dewi (Ben Prendergast) keeps a close eye on things, on the television and even via text messages. A particularly funny moment comes when Alex, worried about whether her ten year old son is at home safe in London, receives a text from Lewisham Council that reads: ‘Do you know where your child is now?’ ‘God,’ she says, ‘it’s like a ransom demand.’
Despite the riots, the cast of characters are safe within Kate and Dewi’s very upper-middle class home. Set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord has done a good job utilising the big stage in the Sumner Theatre, making sure the cast of seven always have somewhere to stand and something to be doing. A few creative touches add to the realism: an outdoor section crunches with gravel as the actors run across it and a platform above serves as a hotel room and bedroom, blacked out when it isn’t in use.
Still, while the stage was convincingly cluttered with the sorts of things a wealthy couple might buy, it did feel a bit bland; its drab greys and Ikea-style modern chic rendering it serviceable yet forgettable.
Thankfully, Lisa Mibus’s lighting design infused the stage with a beautiful naturalism. Morning light streaming through the curtains really makes it feel as though the sun is peeking over the horizon, while late at night the harsh white lighting seals the living room off from the world as the chaos unfolds.
The Distance is a play that leans heavily on its writing and performances, and because each of these is so utterly engrossing and moving, most minor flaws are forgiven. It’s easy to get the sense that the three leading women have worked closely together, forming a genuine connection that electrifies on stage. They exchange Bruce’s dialogue back and forth with the ease of throwing and catching a ball.
As the central figure amidst all the drama, Prior at first seems to be playing the role cautiously, using Bea’s emotional distance as a buffer between her and the character. She clams up, stands in the corner of the room or lies flat on the floor Kate often remarks that she’s always ‘shutting down’ when they try to help her.
Prior’s performance reaches its peak when she arrives at the home after a late night and accidentally wakes up Liam, Alex’s son, who’s now staying over at the house. Away from the judgements and inquisitions of her friends, Bea shows herself to be distraught—at odds with her own happiness versus how her children will cope. Klocek, in his first performance with the MTC, appropriately evokes the awkwardness of a 15 year old talking to his Mum’s drunk friend as she flits between anxious, silly and uncomfortably flirty. Possessing great chemistry, they elicit some big laughs as Liam tries to explain what you’re supposed to do when you’re lost in the woods, probed by Bea hoping to glean some metaphorical advice.
Supporting cast members Nathan Page and Ben Prendergast play their roles well, with the understanding that The Distance is about the three women. It’s a credit to Bruce’s writing that the male counterparts are fully-rounded characters; they just as easily could have been comic relief or dim-witted and servile husbands. Introducing himself as a brash loudmouth, Page showcases Vinnie’s sensitivity when Bea’s kids are on Skype, as he tries to distract her son from realising his own mum doesn’t want to speak to him.
The Distance has more fun with its drama than any of Ibsen’s plays ever did. Recalling the catastrophic trajectory of Miller’s The Crucible, Deborah Bruce always manages to carve up the tension with humour without sapping the narrative’s strength. Some scenes do sag—Kate’s consistent reminders that Bea needs to embrace her motherhood lose their strength and a discussion about custody of children borders on didactics—but they are quickly buoyed when the plot moves forward.
Letitia Caceres’s direction is skilful in this regard, handling the less compelling parts of Bruce’s script with efficiency. Instead of being a burden, the various side plots actually spruce up the narrative and support Bruce’s thesis about the power of one disaster to incite several others.
Excellent performances and writing make this MTC show something transcendent, so much that it isn’t held back by its flaws. This is what compelling drama is all about.