Taking cues from recent tragedies in social care, Chris Lee – who is a full time social worker – has turned a national topic on its head with Shallow Slumber. A reversed narrative plays with the wide scope of the subject of social care, and raises questions of expectation and fatalism – questions which shape the complex thoughts and actions of the characters. A contemplative and focused production which draws an audience through a cold and dysfunctional ending to a suspenseful, climatic beginning.
The story spirals around struggling single mother Dawn and the tangled, contested relationship with her social worker, Moira. Lee’s writing crafts a series of long and tense scenes, punctuated by rare and sudden action. The script is slow burn which builds into a reflective and revelatory understanding, and can be difficult to get to grips with at first. The opening act is a distant, cautious encounter which can leave the audience with little opportunity to get into the story. Stick with it, however, and the years which unfold across the three acts brings us closer to the event which shaped the two women’s lives. The ending, or beginning, is all the more striking as we have come to know Dawn for who she is, and not for what she has done.
Mary Nighy, who holds many accolades as a short film director, struggles to bring momentum to this staging of Lee’s dense text. Attempts are made to use the traverse staging to provide differing perspectives, but with only two performers these positions create more problems than they solve. The transitions between scenes explores the clean and sparse staging by Georgia Lowe, but for most of the evening the lack of movement began to test the audience’s attention. On the stage there are no closeups or cutaways to develop the submerged tension which builds in the script’s long conversations, so there is much pressure on Alexandra Gilbreath and Amy Cudden’s nuanced and introspective performances to carry the entire show.
Shallow Slumber asks for a small amount of patience in return for a satisfying payoff. An articulate take on the overlooked sensibilities of social care in a culture that frequently addresses the issue with scandal and sensationalism. Stories of struggling mothers and social workers have become a part of contemporary mythology, elevated in the public consciousness to represent broad social or political challenges in British society. The deeply individual and emotional effects of abuse are often sidelined, making powerful stories such as Lee’s all the more important. The show is dedicated to “social workers everywhere and anybody with a heart”, and I couldn’t agree more.
Shallow Slumber is playing at Soho Theatre until 18 February.