Cordelia Lynn returns to the Royal Court after making her debut there in 2015. Tom Preston reviews 'One For Sorrow' for Miro Magazine.

Absolute darkness is a great theatrical tool which allows the audience’s imagination to flourish. All that is needed is a catalyst – a sound effect or footsteps, for example – to unleash those infinite images. In the case of Cordelia Lynn’s new play One For Sorrow, it is a hushed voice on his desperate journey through a London which has, only moments before, been hit by a terrorist attack. Sitting in the dark I can see with great clarity his terrifying odyssey through an urban nightmare. It is one of the most engaging and chilling openings to a play I have seen in a while.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, we’re in a spacious and modern London house, home to couple Emma and Bill and their daughters Imogen and Chloe. From the outset it is clear this is a liberally minded middle-class family, though they are far from without conflict. Eldest daughter Imogen, much to her parents’ dismay, has just tweeted to the world #OpenDoor, an invitation for any victims of the attack to take shelter in their home. As chaos and hysteria spread across the city outside, we are witnessing a war of generations within the household; Imogen is ideologically fearless (what her parents would call naïve), while her parents are more concerned with the reality of inviting a complete stranger into their home (something Imogen would hatefully call fear and apathy).

Irfan Shamji in One For Sorrow at Royal Court, London. Photo: Johan Persson

This ongoing conflict is the lifeblood of the play, a fruitful subject Lynn handles well within the family dynamic. It would have been effective and interesting enough to have the family await a stranger who never arrives, Beckett-style, but Lynn employs that oldest of storytelling devices and delivers us the stranger, John (Irfan Shamji who gives a reserved, affecting performance). A mechanical engineering student of undisclosed ethnic origin, he is the symbol of this family’s so-called progressive ideals being put to the test. Despite a genial welcome, mistrust of the newcomer is never far away. It is entertaining to watch the capable cast, through silence more than words, communicate the simmering tension under the surface.

Director James Macdonald – as with Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children and Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone – proves again his deft handling of sharp dialogue and a great grasp of character (those previous Royal Court productions also placed us in a seemingly domestic idyll, while catastrophe occurs outside, whether in the past or the present). He delivers comic moments that flip to unbearable tension in a heartbeat, yet each character feels fully formed and relatable. Neil Dudgeon plays Bill as an apologetic, loving father attempting to hold everything together and entirely dominated by the three strong women in his house. Sarah Woodward is acerbic and witty as Emma, while newcomer Kitty Archer as Chloe laudably embodies a wide-eyed teenager longing to see the world outside, but doesn’t know she is far from ready to see it.

Pearl Chanda and Sarah Woodward in One for Sorrow at Royal Court, London. Photo: Johan Persson

Pearl Chanda’s Imogen, almost unbearably principled and stubborn in the beginning, comes entirely undone as her family’s suspicion mounts against John, who refuses to take off his coat. Black vertical lines like inkblots slowly stain the walls as this family’s ideological bubble is burst; and sadly, they know it. Therein lies the troubling question at the heart of Lynn’s play: while the world outside violently tears itself apart, in an internal struggle of your values versus self-preservation, which would you choose?

 

★★★★☆

One For Sorrow plays the Royal Court Upstairs until 11 August. For more information and tickets, visit their website here.