The empty crib, the absent baby. It's a powerful dramatic symbol which many writers have used, most famously Edward Albee in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And it's at the centre of this short but very powerful play by new writer Eleonora Fusco at the Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. I was really keen to see this because I had read the script a few months ago, and was keen to see how it would work on stage.
This play about a couple in their thirties whose relationship is collapsing lasts only 40 minutes. But the story of Emma and James is told with a brilliant mixture of realism and exaggerated fantasy that keeps the audience guessing. At its best, it rivals Harold Pinter's mastery of subtext; when Emma and James argue about chicken or roast on the first page, the short exchange tells us everything we need to know about their relationship. And when Emma starts talking to her giant teddy bear, it suggests a woman whose world is falling apart. 'There is no baby' is the key line of the play.
The action is split into three scenes; before the dinner, during it and after it. In the second scene, the guests arrive. In the script, they are puppets rather than real people. And in the final scene Emma and James confront each other.
Celine Abrahams gives a stunning performance as the disintegrating Emma. There are some performers who seem to magnetise the audience and dominate the stage by sheer presence, and she is one of them. And she is well supported by Samuel Freeman as James, with Sadie Clark and Winston Obi as the puppet-like guests Eveline and Leonard. The director is Katharina Kastening, who varies the tone and pace meticulously and uses the small stage to excellent effect.
For me the script reaches its dramatic climax at the end of the second scene. The final scene between Emma and James, switching from lyrical reminiscence to brutal confrontation, is convincing but more conventional than what has gone before. The play works best when it suggests different levels of reality.
I went away with three ideas; firstly that Celine Abrahams is a huge talent whose career deserves to take off; secondly that the play, while not perfect, deserves a longer run than just a week; and thirdly that fringe theatre in London is still fizzing with fresh talent.