In an austere and extravagant green drawing room overlooking the river Thames, a family prepare for their oldest son’s upcoming wedding. On the wall hangs two portraits: a young man stood proudly in rich, green finery and a stern looking woman who appears to be wearing dark mourning clothes. The way she is positioned gives the impression that she almost slumps against her frame, consumed with grief. Soon their symbolic counterparts appear on stage: Groom-to-be Roy Christie (Jack Studden) and his adoring mother Alicia (Abigail Cruttenden).
The nuptial celebrations are brought to a screeching halt when Alicia, stricken at the prospect of losing her son to marital bliss, steals a black chiffon nightgown from a department store. What unfolds in the lead up to her trial is an Oedipal domestic drama in which the family stand on the cusp of social ruin and must confront the unspeakable notion that, in a world of domineering male egos, that most innocent of emotional bonds, the love between a mother and son can become unhealthy, possessive and depraved.
Beth Colley’s set becomes the claustrophobic arena in which this family’s veneer of normality is shattered and hastily reassembled. The action never leaves the drawing room and as characters stride in and out, we see a symbol of the confined life Mrs Christie is condemned to. Her entire life is reduced to a family space that will soon have no family to occupy it. Her children give her meaning; her son is her last vestige of emotional security and so, in a moment of euphoric clarity she commits a crime; to compete with her daughter-in-law, or, as she claims, simply because she wanted it?
Action unfolds painfully and determinedly. Meaningful glances are exchanged behind turned backs and terse words are spilled into teacups. Emotions by the show’s climax are as taut as a piano string. Black Chiffon perfectly exemplifies the intoxicating tension of domestic drama. The dark family secret lurks just in our periphery throughout and we collide into it without a chance to take a steadying breath.
Cruttenden is show stopping as Mrs Christie. She portrays Alicia with unflinching vulnerability, at once maternal, fractured and immeasurably strong. Even in her happiest moments she still radiates a desperate sadness. She is a woman who fears the cruel void of obsoletion after a life spent laboriously keeping peace between her dispassionate husband and son, undertaking the role of both parents in the wake of her husband’s neglect. But even this purpose is kinder than no purpose at all.
Dr Hawkins (Nicholas Murchie), sent by Alicia’s horrified and reputation conscious husband (Ian Kelly) to determine some psychological cause for her crime, is sensitive and discerning. He questions her with a genuine sympathy that adds a complex emotional dimension to her case. The trust that forms between the two and Alicia’s eventual honesty make their scenes the most compelling.
The show ends with a scene that strikes me as a little too clean. Where ambiguity may serve to provide a more thought provoking conclusion, the idea that all loose ends are tied up does a slight disservice to the multi-faceted themes presented to us. Throughout the play, the Christie’s daughter Thea (Eva Feiler) is heavily pregnant and assures her mother that she is going to have a boy. The next generation and potential focus of Alicia’s desperate love rests silently between them and offers the grim possibility of repetition.
Black Chiffon played at the Park Theatre until 12 October. For more information, visit the Park Theatre website.