Though it’s not the most adventurous piece of theatre, Damaged Goods by emerging playwright Rosalind Adler, marks itself out in its touching faith in humanity and our ability to heal after trauma. It’s part of the Playmill Festival for new writing at the King’s Head Theatre. This monologue-driven piece does not catch you by the coat tails and demand your attention – you’re more likely to find yourself slowly absorbed by the characters’ journeys which (perhaps unusually in theatre) all have an upward momentum.
The play is ostensibly about a fraudulent, council-funded quasi-cult The Hub (memorably described by one character as “a massive cow with teats for the spiritually crippled to suck on”) – but really that’s just an excuse to write about the interconnected lives of three women. All three are played by Adler herself, and though the characters are well-written, she has a tendency to push her performance to stereotypical extremes in terms of accent and posture to differentiate each woman.
We have Sal, a retired lecturer who’s in heartbreaking denial about the death of her daughter from meningitis. Adler plays her with a suffocating plummy accent that’s natural home is an Agatha Christie adaptation. Then there’s Annie, an incredibly nervous and broken women who has had all her self-confidence strangled out of her by an overbearing husband. Adler steers close to the archetypal mad woman, though Annie does become more likeable as the play goes on. Finally we have Rhona, an angry and slightly naff performance poet with daddy issues and a knack for cringe-inducing rhymes. Adler adds a little too much bluster and not enough vulnerability.
Richard Heap is also on multi-roling duty, playing Sal’s donnish ex-husband, Annie’s chauvinistic partner and Rhona’s Irish shrink. The latter is regularly forced to hide bruises from his wife with her concealer. Heap is less inclined to extremes than Adler, although he arguably has an easier job.
Though the characters sometimes lack subtlety, it’s their character arcs which are truly enjoyable. Soon the leader of The Hub – who spouts complex metaphors about trees and says things like “feeling worthless is just another form of vanity” – does a runner with Annie’s cash after sexually manipulating her and Rhona. The three women are forced to take control of the failing spiritual healing club while simultaneously overcoming the obstacles in their own life. Refreshingly, they do remarkably well at this.
After Annie’s husband is confined to a wheelchair after a heart attack and minor stroke, he’s finally forced to take Annie seriously when she takes control of his life. Like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, he’s softened by dependency and we see that although his attitudes towards women are resolutely stuck in the 50s, he has the potential to be a decent man
Rhona’s poetry doesn’t get any better, but she finds herself riding a wave of fame after exposing the fraud around The Hub through angry verse hung on trees. Her shrink Kevin finally finds the courage to leave his abusive wife. Sally is still hurting too much to find simple resolution, but by becoming the new leader of The Hub she might find momentary peace over her daughter’s death.
Damaged Goods is a true ensemble piece and every character is given space to develop. Visually, however, it’s uninteresting – the monologues are all rather static and don’t play off each other in the same way as a play like Mike Bartlett’s Not Talking. Adler has previously written for the radio and you wonder if that would have been a better home for Damaged Goods than the stage. Director Kirsty Bennett tries to appeal to the eyes with subtle changes in lighting and sound, yet Adler’s text doesn’t give her much to work with.
Nevertheless, Damaged Goods is an exercise in tender positivity. Perhaps it’s more persuasive in raising our hopes about humanity’s potential than a showier, more arresting piece of theatre.
Damaged Goods is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 18 July
Photo: King’s Head Theatre website