Review: [BLANK], Donmar Warehouse

[BLANK], new play by powerhouse playwright Alice Birch – and co-production with Clean Break to mark their 40th year – is a gut-punching piece of theatre. The text, handed to me on arrival at the Donmar, is a hefty bit of literature – 501 pages, no less. 100 scenes, offered as ‘a challenge and an invitation’ to directors and theatre companies, to do, essentially, what they like with them.

The scenes look at the impact of the criminal justice system on women and the people close to them. For Maria Aberg’s production, 30 of these scenes have been carefully selected. They could be shown in complete isolation of each other, but here, narrative threads and recurring characters have been carefully interwoven throughout to build a complex, interconnected world. 

Each scene provides us with a glimpse at a life – sometimes fleeting, sometimes detailed; always moving or funny or heartbreaking or all of those at once. There’s the daughter stealing money from her mother for drugs, the woman close to birthing a child within prison walls (a painful reminder of a recent news story), the privileged group of middle-class women and their faux-wokeness – and so much more. These are often small, everyday moments, with big things to say about the criminal justice system and the consequences it may have for mothers, sisters, daughters, children.

Aberg’s direction is glorious, rendering these moments truthful and unexpectedly relatable. Her skill particularly shines through in a climactic dinner-party scene, where tension is brought uncomfortably to the surface. Combined with the sensitive intricacies of Birch’s writing, which is littered with phrases that transcend the context of the criminal justice system and speak to all lives – ‘have you ever felt like you were standing exactly to the left of your life?’ – we’re left with a production that’s alive; breathing.   

This all happens within the smart design of Rosie Elnile. A bare, cold set across two levels, made up of right-angles and contained, box-like spaces, manages to conjure up all manner of locations – a claustrophobic kitchen, a prison cell, a cold street at night. Video design by Heta Multanen projects huge faces on back walls, contorted with emotion – an unignorable backdrop to the action on stage. 

The ensemble cast is unbelievably strong; there’s not a weak link in sight. Unforgettable are the performances of Zainab Hassan and Thusitha Jayasundera, depicting a volatile mother-daughter relationship that leaves me with chills. 

[BLANK] solidifies, yet again, Clean Break’s reputation as one of the most meaningful champions of women in this industry. All at once uplifting and soul-destroying, it’s an urgent exploration of family, morality and injustice that demands to be seen and heard.

[BLANK] is playing the Donmar Warehouse until 30 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Donmar Warehouse website.