Daughters[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)

Some of the most considered and exciting work I’ve seen at the Fringe so far has come from surprisingly young companies, and Hot Bear’s dark and involving drama Daughters is yet another example of such mature and ambitious theatre-making. In a Camden flat, no-hoper Harry (Ralph Davis) is making a strange sort of life for himself. Academic precocity and privileged upbringing aside, he’s pretty much teetering on the edge of total withdrawal from society – as best friend Joe quite bluntly puts it, “he’s fucked”. The flat’s a mess, his girlfriend’s gone, and he’s utterly broke. It could easily be aggravating to watch an upper class teenager mope about his hovel, but Davis imbues the directionless Harry with an exhausted stillness that radiates from his very core, his movement tinged with the resignation of a wounded animal that knows its fate is sealed.

It’s no surprise, then, that he’s somewhat less than welcoming when distressed younger sister Ellie (impressive and heart-breaking Maddy Glasbey) turns up demanding sanctuary after an apocalyptic argument with their father. The tone of a sibling relationship is expertly captured – dsyfunctional, tender and fiercely protective, but there’s something going unspoken between Ellie and Harry, something to do with the situation with Dad that leaves a chill in the air whenever it’s mentioned. Oddly eager to get Maddie out of the house, Harry claims he’s working from home and needs isolation. A little awkward then, when childhood best friend Joe strides in  (Manuuv Thiara is a particularly likeable onstage presence with sharp comic timing and believable sensitivity). Excuses are made, Ellie leaves, and the boys settle down  to work that is, to drink, listen to nostalgic records, reminisce about the good old days (don’t forget these boys are 18) and satisfy their minor coke habit.

It’s  a compliment when I say that Polly Stenham comes to mind – the privately-educated Harry and Joe are funny, charming, harmless young men but their lives are somewhat hollow, and Daughters makes some perceptive and troubling observations about what it means to be young, privileged and deeply unhappy. Ralph Davis’s script is subtle and layered, full of wit and poignancy that elicits accomplished performances from the talented young cast. The late appearance of the siblings’ father is dramatically unnecessary, but actor George Wilson more than proves his worth, managing to add at least three decades onto himself, meeting our eyes with a frank, repellent candour. However much it clashes with the dominant naturalism, I do like the veering, near-surrealism of his revelatory monologue, an immersive insight into the deluded mindset of an abuser, a darkly charismatic man who really believes everything is “fine and dandy”.

As to be expected from an early production from such a young company, there are a few hiccups that prevents Daughters from being entirely successful. Though it gets off to a supremely confident start, there some trouble with pacing arises once the family’s traumas begin to surface. Oddly-timed expositions slightly undo the work they’ve put into tension-building and creating a naturalistic rhythm. The drug-fuelled freak outs have their purpose, highlighting the young men’s eagerness to escape from everyday drudgery in any way possible, but again it undermines what actually makes Daughters a near-perfect piece of dramatic realism. Its power lies in the understated performances and zippy, intelligent writing handling the horrors of an abusive parent with sensitivity and understatement, the creeping unease that even the funniest ‘banter’ can’t dissipate, the growing sadness when we realise all is not well here and perhaps never will be. What Daughters does deliver is something like a tantalising first act of what could very well be astonishing if made into a full-length piece. Here’s hoping Hot Bear can use its experience this year as a springboard for future work that I’m certain will deliver fully on its considerable promise.

Daughters is playing at The Space at Surgeons Hall as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until August 24. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe website.