Plays about family dynamics are hard to get right. Often they are stuffed with melodrama and unfold like an episode of Coronation Street, or they are lengthy, ponderous disquisitions on overly abstract topics. Fortunately, Plastic Figurines, written by Ella Carmen Greenhill, is neither. It is an affecting and refreshingly direct addition to the capital’s theatre offering this month.
To call this show a play about family dynamics might in itself be reductive. It follows Michael (Jamie Samuel) and his sister Rose (Vanessa Schofield) in the aftermath of their mother’s death from leukaemia. Michael also has autism, which becomes the dramatic centre of the work, the fulcrum around which all other concerns revolve.
The play’s treatment of an autistic character was always going to be nuanced and emotive – it could hardly be otherwise after The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time– but I wasn’t prepared for the unfettered emotion Samuel and Schofield would bring to their portrayals. Samuel presents a masterful character study. His is an astonishingly physical performance, with verbal and corporeal ticks refined to an accomplished degree. Schofield, too, manages to encapsulate the lonely frustrations of Rose’s situation: she is neither a Saint, martyred to her brother, nor has she been rendered bitter by her mother’s death and her new found responsibilities. Both characters are lost in worlds they are trying desperately to understand.
These performances owe much, of course, to Greenhill’s writing. It is so effective because it is largely devoid of metaphor, which can often weigh down a performance and remove it from the immediacy of the characters’ experiences. Whether this is a deliberate stylistic choice, stemming from the moments in the narrative where Michael has trouble with grasping the meaning of a metaphorical expressions, I’m not sure, but it does away artifice and pretension to reach an acute emotional realness. This means that even the work’s most highly charged scenes, such as when Michael and Rose argue after their mother’s funeral, don’t become messy and disorganised as they so easily could, but are tautly and lucidly controlled.
Plastic Figurines’ conceit is so neat and its execution so precise that it seems trifling to mention the few details that jar. The narrative’s time shifts are in large part unnecessary, as the plot would have worked just as well if it developed chronologically. Similarly, the play is set in motion by a car accident Michael has been involved in, but this again feels extraneous and the play would have lost nothing by removing it. However overall Plastic Figurines is an astonishing piece of new writing exuberantly brought to life by a talented cast.
Plastic Figurines is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 22 October 2016. For more information and tickets, see New Diorama Theatre website.
Photo: Richard Davenport