This new play by Lila Whelan grew out of a short news item to become a deeply moving, often shocking examination of the human causes of a house fire which killed two young children and their father. Set in an impoverished northern town, The Deep Space unfolds through an emotional conversation in a police cell between Samantha, the mother of the two children that died, and Caitlin. The narrative is swift and punchy, alternating between episodes from Samantha’s life with her cocky unemployed, and apparently unemployable, husband, Liam, and the painful dialogue between the two women. It quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it appears; both women have traumatic personal histories which they’ve desperately tried to hide, and which have ultimately driven events to their tragic conclusions.
Dealing with such highly-charged issues as sexual abuse, infanticide and bulimia, The Deep Space has an immense, haunting power, but the credit for realising the play’s potential must rightfully be given to the four-strong cast. Lila Whelan herself ably takes the role of Caitlin, an ambitious career woman bent on uncovering the truth of the fire, and with it the disturbing reality of Samantha’s story. Abbiegale Duncan is perfect as Samantha, the very young wife and mother, living in poverty and working in Asda; she communicates brilliantly the terror of the pain of her past and present, while Oliver Yellop makes a good job of the laddish Liam and his twisted conception of marriage. The three are complemented by Sarah Fraser who gives the most vibrant performance as Samantha’s bubbly friend and work colleague Kay, a loudly self-professed Christian whose jealousy and bitchy comments repeatedly undermine her faith.
Lila Whelan’s writing is incredible for its empathy, complex emotional depth and convincing characters. The strong acting and simple fixed set, a basically-furnished room papered with news stories about the fire, bring the work to its full potential. Whelan wants to challenge society’s tacit acceptance that the pain and suffering that exists behind the closed doors of every street in this country, the evil things that happen in private in our families and marriages, should be ignored simply because it is not our business. The Deep Space makes this important point in a way that is both devastatingly moving and beautiful. It’s one of those rare, tough plays that ought to reach as broad an audience as possible.
The Deep Space is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 9 March. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Old Red Lion Theatre website.