Torn, at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (Royal Court) (review)

The audience files into the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs and takes their seats around the edge of what feels like a community centre, in the stripped space which has been transformed by designer Ultz.  One young woman sits on a chair, partly watching us come in, and partly nervously pacing over to the tea urn and back.   The audience complete, one character enters the room, whilst the young woman (Angel) sets out other chairs in a semi-circle which mirrors the one we are sitting in, watched intently by all of us as she moves them carefully into place.

For the ensuing 90 minutes we remain gripped to the action and the dialogue of Torn. It is painful but we cannot look away.  From the moment the rest of the 9-strong cast explode into the room, we are caught up in the story of this family before us, centring on what happened to Angel, what the others thought did or did not happen, and what anyone might have done (or not done) about it. We have to keep alert to understand the relationships at first as the dialogue is fast and loose and voices cross and tangle up; not many of the characters are given proper names.  This is a mixed race family based on four sisters, one of whom (1st Twin) is Angel’s mother, and this dimension of the mixed race family is an important one to the plot.  Writer Martello-White is interested in so many themes, and they’re not small ones. Race, family, identity, class, just for starters.

The delivery of Torn is interesting. The characters stay in the room for most of the play. The language veers between South London ‘street’ talk, expletives and all, and a rather poetical form of speaking which brings to mind a Greek tragedy. At those points when tempers erupt most violently, and arguments occur simultaneously, the audience is forced to choose which one they listen to. This naturalist depiction of a family argument can be frustratingly similar to being in one of those sorts of arguments yourself.  The drawback is that it is impossible to hear and follow everything, and you really want to.  The chronology is also challenging to follow at times, jumping back and forth in time in front of your eyes. The props are just the chairs, the tea urn and a few polystyrene cups. There is nowhere to hide. As Martello-White says in the clip above, he’s interested in stripping it all back, making it about the performer in the space.

In an impressive cast, Adelle Leonce’s performance as Angel is heartbreaking. Her pain is evident, yet she is the one made to feel guilty for bringing the family together to discuss the ‘wreckage’ of her life, to try to understand why she wasn’t protected by the people closest to her. Her mother, 1st Twin, is also a strong performance by Indra Ové, as you almost find yourself understanding her reasons for splitting up her family and ruining her child’s life.

Last seen on stage as an actor in People, Places, Things and whose first play, Blackta, was about the black actor’s struggle, Martello-White is a guy to watch.  He will be in conversation after the show on Tuesday 27th September and, I guarantee, will have plenty to say.

Until 15th October at the Royal Court Theatre; royalcourttheatre.com

Disclaimer: I saw this production on a press ticket.

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