First published in The Times, Friday April 27 2018
Clearly, there is something in the zeitgeist. From Outnumbered to Motherland, there has been a steady trickle of television sitcoms in recent years lampooning the chaos, guilt and tedium of modern parenting. Frances Poet’s latest play occupies the same gaudy terrain of soft play centres, nurseries and adventure playgrounds. Yet, aside from one amusing sequence involving a tussle between two adults over a Kermit the Frog figurine, its mood never strays far from the dark end of the spectrum.
The incident that sparks the play’s slow-burning drama seems innocuous at first. Charged with looking after her three-year-old grandson Joshua for the first time on her own, Morven (Lorraine McIntosh) allows a stranger to take the boy to the toilet while she flusters with a laden tray at a supermarket café.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Rory (Peter Collins), her son, and Maddy (Kirsty Stuart), the child’s mother, are incensed, but Morven can’t see what all the fuss is about. “In my day we trusted people,” she says. “I’ve always just trusted my gut instinct.”
While Maddy is initially more inclined to forgive her mother-in-law’s mistake, she becomes tormented by what she sees as worrying developments in Joshua’s behaviour and feels increasingly distrusting of male strangers. A visit to the police, supposedly to set her mind at rest, merely compounds her anguish when officers take the boy to be interviewed in a room without her.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
As the play, directed by Zinnie Harris for the Traverse in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, gathers pace, there are echoes of Rosemary’s Baby in Maddy’s transformation from cheerful young mum to paranoid obsessive, haunted by the sinister men (all played with deadpan menace by George Anton) she starts noticing at every turn. Indeed, Poet’s script could use more of the ambiguity of Roman Polanski’s film: the play’s final portion in particular is weighed down by bald passages of exposition.
Across the piece, however, the playwright succeeds in capturing something of the insecurity of modern parenting and the ways in which parents’ identities become completely overwhelmed by their child’s needs. The streams of plastic toys that eventually flood Fred Meller’s simple set will certainly provoke shivers of recognition among some in the audience.