Lucy Osborne’s fantastic design is the first thing that strikes you as Luna Gale starts up. The three walls of the stage house thick black shelves stacked floor to ceiling with files and folders. The scale is huge, and emphasises a key theme in the play immediately, that of how government administration affects social issues through bureaucracy.
Rebecca Gilman’s play concerns the process of the State of Iowa negotiating the process of deciding on what should happen to the unseen baby Luna Gale. Upon falling sick, she is taken away from young mother Karlie (Rachel Redford) and her boyfriend Peter (Alexander Arnold), who are discovered to be meth addicts. A battle ensues between the apparently reforming couple and Karlie’s vocally Christian mother, Cindy (Caroline Faber). The central protagonist, however, is Caroline (Sharon Small) the case officer who anchors the narrative and takes on Luna’s situation. We follow her route through trying to make a decision on who she thinks she should have custody, and then how she tries to go about achieving that decision. Throughout this process we see her struggle to navigate conflict with her supervisor, compounding her prejudice against Christian beliefs, the scars of her childhood being abused, the decline and subsequent death of one of her wards and trying to soothe Karlie’s anger at her mother’s actions.
The intricate web of perspectives and motives behind the characters’ attitude towards the baby are brought absorbingly together by Gilman. There are periods when the dialogue, particularly scenes involving Cindy, strays somewhat from realism, as it moves towards social satire, especially handling bible bashing and the sexual euphemisms surrounding clerical vernacular about ‘Jesus’s love’. However, for the most part, she brings together thought-provoking dialogue with clear sharp emotional questions. The ways in which the characters question Caroline’s judgement, makes the audience continuously reassess what they think would make the right decision, and who should have the final decision and why.
The performances are strong throughout, with application and intensity from all the actors. The accents are accurate throughout, and the emotional depiction is completely engrossing. Sharon Small is excellent as the voice of reason, while showing real passion throughout, and special mention must go to Arnold for an excellent portrayal of the nervous, awkward, caring boyfriend of Karlie. The other performances perhaps lacked the variation of these two, but none of them were weak by any means, and there was real energy in the brilliant physicality of Rachel Redford.
There were a number of blackouts which did bring the pace and energy down, especially as a couple of them were relatively long, and featured what seemed to be quite incongruous mood music. However, they allowed them to fly in Osborne’s brilliantly detailed sets which more than compensated for this. The sets, which included a kitchen, an office and a hospital waiting room amongst others, were realistically designed, but it was the level of focus on this which was impressive, from the magnets on the fridge to the labels on the files in Caroline’s office.
With themes such as child abuse, drug abuse, neglected children and state failures in childcare, this play is arresting and packs an emotional punch, but the level of thought provocation and audience investment in the characters means that it never becomes overbearing. The script excellently presents each person’s perspective, and the ways in which they all intertwine. It means that the production maintains interest in the characters and the narrative’s conclusion throughout, whilst also insightfully raising questions about the fate of our children. The strong script coupled with detailed performances make this an extremely watchable and rewarding production, complemented by an excellent visual design element.
Luna Gale is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 18 July. For tickets and more information, see the Hampstead Theatre website.