Ex-social worker Moira radiates defeat. Limp-shouldered, her grey dressing gown hangs loosely from her as she clutches a mug of tea and looks with deadened eyes at Dawn, the young woman recently released from prison who is asking tearfully and increasingly angrily why she “won’t fucking help” her. “Because you ruined my life” answers Moira, in a whisper.
There is zero chance of slumbering during award-winning writer Chris Lee’s new play. Inspired by the tragic death of Baby P and informed by Lee’s experiences as a social worker, this harrowing two-hander tells its story backwards. We watch as time rewinds through three key turning points, back to the horrific instance of child abuse that caused Moira to lose her job and destroyed both women’s lives.
It is an effective technique, lending an ominous significance to the most trivial of exchanges. It is also dramatically compelling in its promise of a peeling back of the layers of need, hurt and pride that have accumulated around the characters. Like the Moira we meet in the optimistic first flush of her career, we look eagerly for the clues that will explain how she and Dawn have ended up as they have.
It is a shame, then, that as the story unfolds we are left with a growing sense of something being missing. Too often we are left to piece together events and relationships that would have benefited from being shown on stage. Why does a post-prison Dawn turn to Moira as the only person she can trust? When we only see them meet three times, the answer isn’t as clear as it could be. Nevertheless, a play that leaves you wanting more and not less is on the right track. And this one is anchored by Lee’s voice and a pair of exceptionally strong performances.
Lee’s depiction of an under-resourced social services system is sympathetic but clear-sighted. Unlike the tragedy of Baby P, it is not clear here that Moira has made any procedural mistakes. But via Dawn he makes a wider point about the disempowering double-standards applied to those from deprived backgrounds; intervention, however it is glossed, that feels like punishment. Subjected to constant scrutiny and treated as a case study by Moira, who trots out practised and patronising statements of empathy, Dawn’s sense of enforced helplessness has terrible consequences.
Director Mary Nighy uses drawn-out pauses and a traverse set to powerfully convey the distance that exists between the women in different ways, at different times. When the play opens they are eyeing each other apprehensively from behind chairs at either end of the stage. Earlier in their lives, Dawn, locked into her misery as surely as she will later be shut up in prison, is unable to bridge the gulf, while Moira is dangerously ignorant of just how great and precipitous it is.
Tellingly, the most that present-day Moira will say of the small charity she runs when we meet her is that “it pays the bills.” As a snarky Dawn points out during the fateful (and only) house visit we witness, there is something priest-like about the younger Moira’s determination to reform people – a self-serving professional evangelism rooted, as we learn, in a troubled childhood. Alexandra Gilbreath excels at making her character likeable in this scene while conveying the educated smugness and steely self-belief that will later melt away into weary resignation.
As Dawn, Amy Cudden gives a performance of ferocious power that distracts from the overly self-aware speeches that Lee occasionally puts in her character’s mouth. Emotionally cunning one minute, she is raw and desperate the next. Loneliness, bewilderment and anger run through her body like a charge, electrifying the air at the play’s climax as Dawn reveals to a stunned Moira the dark depths of her damaged love for her baby daughter. The shallow slumber of her violent tendencies has turned into a nightmare which will engulf them both.