Reviewed – 28th June 2022
“There are lovely moments of humour, juxtaposed with the darkness of Michael Crean’s evocative sound”
It’s quite apt that Tom Ratcliffe’s play “Evelyn” opens with a semi-grotesque, semi-comic re-enactment of a ‘Punch and Judy’ show. Set in a seaside town overlooking the North Sea, the action is constructed to provoke a mixture of outrage and guilty pleasure. We used to laugh at the puppet show, but modern sensibilities have forced it out of fashion. After all, when stripped down, who is Punch but a misogynistic old womaniser, who likes a drink, and who displays unashamed homicidal tendencies? Within fifteen minutes of a typical show the corpses mount up; including his child, his wife and a policeman thrown in for good measure.
Popular consensus has all but killed off the four-hundred-year-old tradition. But what Ratcliffe’s drama (based on actual events) points out is that the storyline is often repeated in real life. And in that real life, ‘popular consensus’ so easily becomes mob rule.
The surreal, albeit a touch confusing, quality generated by the Punch and Judy characters that pop up throughout the show, reveals the back story. Ten years earlier, Evelyn Mills witnessed her husband murder their child. She covered up for him, lied in court and presumably let him get off scot-free while she did time. We never really learn the fate of the murderous and abusive husband, but bizarrely it is Evelyn who is vilified. The villagers are furious that she was allowed to change her identity and be let back into society.
Meanwhile, in the present action, Sandra (Nicola Harrison) arrives in town just as the community concur that Evelyn is back in town. Fingers point at her. Understandably so, she’s an odd ball, claiming she’s from Reading, Ryde, Rochdale; whatever takes her fancy. Thinking she is going to be renting a private apartment she finds herself flat-sharing in a retirement village with dotty Jeanne (Rula Lenska). Sandra is emphatic she needs to be on her own but rapidly hooks up with local electrician Kevin (Offue Okegbe). Kevin’s sister, Laura (Yvette Boakye) bristles at the tryst.
There are bonds that unite the female characters together, focusing on concepts of motherhood and loss, but the performances fail to gel in the same cohesive way. Lenska is watchable, reminiscent of Joanna Lumley’s Patsy, but is carted off before her true relevance is realised. While there are hints of passive aggressiveness towards Harrison’s subtly portrayed Sandra, Boakye’s Laura is just aggressive. She represents the mob, while Okegbe’s Kevin gives Sandra the benefit of the doubt. Is love blind? Or is it everybody else, who cannot see beyond the hive mentality?
The question is never fully resolved. But we never fully engage in the outcome either. The performances lack the rich conviction needed to hit the target that Ratcliffe’s writing is aiming for, exploring some urgent and relevant topics while questioning society’s perception of justice, vigilantism, social media and collective coercion. There are lovely moments of humour, juxtaposed with the darkness of Michael Crean’s evocative sound (performed live by Crean), but the shift of styles distracts. The kitchen sink realism sits uncomfortably beside the ‘Commedia dell’arte’ exaggeration. The intention is crystal clear, but is muddied by its execution.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Greg Goodale
Southwark Playhouse until 16th July
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