OWNERS at the Jermyn Street Theatre
“The production is deceptively complex and skilfully carried off.”
“Turning you out? What an old-fashioned idea!” the power-hungry property developer Marion exclaims at one point in Owners. Of course, what the play sets out to prove is that it’s not an old-fashioned idea at all, but a painfully immediate one: both in 1972, when Caryl Churchill first wrote it, and now, in Stella Powell-Jones’ production at the Jermyn Street Theatre.
Owners is concerned with property: with having and being had. Clegg wants a son, wants a butcher’s shop, wants Marion, who wants power, who wants Alec, who wants — maybe nothing at all. As Marion ruthlessly develops her London properties, she sets her sights on the flat where Alec is living with his pregnant wife. She also sets her sights on their unborn child. Owners is a play about the need to possess, but it is also a play about the need to be possessed. As it unfolds, sinews of desire stretch and flex between the cast, as they separate and come together, tangled in ever darker threads.
The production is deceptively complex and skilfully carried off. The set, designed by Cat Fuller, is a stroke of genius, with a panorama of doors pressing claustrophobically in on the little family. Fuller uses the tiny space of the theatre’s stage to her advantage. Throughout the piece, everyone vies for exactly the same tiny patch of hotly contested real estate, as a series of hinges and compartments turn one flat into the next. It also means that, even when one person’s life is carefully hinged away, it is still ‘present’ on-stage. All these lives stack on top of each other in a suffocating palimpsest that is extremely effective.
What is initially identifiable as something almost in the vein of farce, grows mesmerizingly misshapen and grotesque as the play leads us down darker avenues. This is underscored by increasingly sinister interludes of music (Sasha Howe and Max Pappenheim) and lighting (Chuma Emembolu) during scene changes, before the lights come back up and we revert to the brightly lit family moment. The sense of something dark and inarticulate shadowing beneath the mundane works very well, especially as Owners gathers speed and becomes more confident in its own surreal cynicism. By the end, it eschews the comfortable escape-routes that something ultimately closer to farce might provide, and instead embraces a grim cannibalistic quality that makes for some beautiful moments of dialogue. Ryan Donaldson as Alec delivers a stunningly haunting hospital scene, and Laura Doddington is incredible as the bullish, smarting Marion (“be quick, be clean, be top, be best”), and a personal highlight.
While the themes are still strikingly relevant, the production shies away from what could be a more current exploration of them. The choice to maintain the 70s setting so distinctly through music and costume (Agata Odolczyk) is visually very effective, but also serves to buffer the play slightly, making it a more comfortable watch. When Clegg the butcher charges a customer just 20p for a pound of mince, a titter goes up from the audience: this is not our world, really, then, and we can breathe a sigh of relief. In the second act, however, when the grim surrealism is allowed more space to unfold, Owners does begin to bite more. Ultimately, though frustratingly lacking in urgency, this is a well-executed piece that leaves you heading back to your cold flat and your rented room with a pit in your stomach.
OWNERS at the Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed on 18th October 2023
by Anna Studsgarth
Photography by Steve Gregson
Previously reviewed at this venue: