There are plays about murder, about incest, torture and all kinds of other unimaginable cruelties and taboos, but The Distance, a new play by Deborah Bruce, introduces one that strays into rather virgin territory in the theatrical world: the voluntary abandonment of children by their mother. It is an unexplored, deep dark corner of the human psyche that was to be our home for the next two hours.

Helen Baxendale (probably known to most of us as Ross Geller’s fiancée and short-time wife, Emily from Friends) is riveting, complex and, at times, rather scary as listless, anchor-less Bea, the aforementioned abandoner who has left behind her children and husband Simon in Melbourne after four years of living there as a family. She returns to England to stay with friends Kate and Alex at Kate’s house near Brighton.

The cast are all absurdly watchable, particularly the three leading ladies, each for their own individual quirks and nuances. Scatty, distracted and endearing Alex, played brilliantly by Emma Beattie, is wildly funny and provides some much-needed comic relief from the, at times, rather heavy subject matter.

Control-freak and IVF mother Kate, played by Clare Lawrence-Moody, is completely unable to understand Bea’s choice, 90% of the time refusing to hear her out and generally mistaking Bea’s apprehensiveness as feelings of anxiety due to being separated from her children. But what we learn as the play unfolds is that it is more than that.

Bea eventually confesses, at the height of a fraught argument involving all cast members, that she doesn’t feel she has a connection with her children, and that she would go so far as to say she doesn’t even love them. Her obvious detachment from her children in the lead-up to this confession – particularly when she seems to have no desire to speak to them on Skype when they call – pays testament to this.

It is, perhaps, uncomfortable subject matter. Women are historically, even biologically, proclaimed to be caregivers and protectors of their children no matter what, and initially, because of these assumptions, our first instinct is to put Bea in the role of baddie, or at least of the mentally ill. “What’s wrong with her?” I almost thought, as her actions seem to fly in the face of everything we are conditioned to believe. What’s interesting, though, is how her decision to leave is handled delicately and warmly by Bruce and director Charlotte Gwinner, so that we eventually empathise and identify with her feelings of loss and confusion, and her final acknowledgement that motherhood, for her, was simply a mistake.

The Distance draws out from us the distinct expectations we still hold for women and sticks them on a medical slab for clinical scrutiny. There’s even a cleverly subtle point to be taken that, while the women squabble endlessly about Bea’s alleged negligence of her kids, and while Kate attempts to browbeat Bea into charging back to Melbourne to retrieve her children from husband Simon’s care (for no apparent reason other than she is their mother with whom the children should remain instead of their father), there is little to no actual childcare provided by any of the women to the children in the play. Kate barely attends to her own newborn Iris, and Alex spends most of the play unaware of the whereabouts of her 15-year-old son Liam (endearingly portrayed by promising actor Bill Milner). In fact, the male cast carries out all childcare given in the play. Kate’s husband Dewi, played sweetly by Daniel Hawksford, simultaneously cooks dinner and attends to baby Iris. The talented and rather underused Oliver Ryan, who pays Dewi’s wayward and irresponsible but honourable brother Vinnie, entertains Bea’s waiting children on Skype and provides for Dewi’s illegitimate child and her mother. Even surly teenager Liam seems more emotionally invested in Bea’s children than she is.

The play is an expertly blended mix of drama, wit, intelligence and sharp, fast-paced dialogue. It explores the bonds and boundaries of friendship when the demands for understanding and acceptance that we make of each other are outside the realm of our own convictions. The play has emotional breadth and depth while dealing with what could potentially be rather incendiary subject matter, yet is never crude or unsympathetic with its humour. I urge you to see it while you can and eagerly await what more Deborah Bruce has in store.

The Distance is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 8 November. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website. Photo by Helen Warner.