With so many potential topics for theatre to explore, there really is carte blanche nowadays for a writer to paint the canvas of their work. So many plays look to tackle deeper intellectual questions and deliver an answer with something to discuss afterwards. In this case, the beauty of TOMCAT is that it throws so many questions at the audience in such a short space of time that people leave wondering which one to broach first. It bombards the audience with intriguing and controversial material and makes no attempts to answer any of these points itself. Whilst it would be easy to feel cheated that the play doesn’t present its opinion, James Rushbrooke here has managed instead to deftly pose the questions and allow everyone to draw their own conclusions, which ultimately enhances the whole performance rather than detracting from its ambiguity.
TOMCAT tells of Jessie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a twelve year old girl who is born into a world where diseases and medical disorders are all but wiped out. As one of the last living humans with her condition, Jessie is kept in a medical facility and studied, first by Caroline (Diana Kent) and now by Charlie (Edward Harrison). Apart from these two and her nurse Tom (Brian Doherty), Jessie is all but alone in the world, trapped in her high tech cage. But now she is growing up, and starting to ask questions that prove difficult to answer. To what extent then is her behaviour dictated by her condition, by her manufactured environment, by her natural biological development or by her frustration that she simply can’t get the answers she seeks?
With so many different topics in this play, it is interesting to muse about which in particular captivated the audiences’ attention. For me it was the tug of war between the scientific need to study Jessie versus the stifling of her creative outlet. As she is plied with more and more experimental treatments to better understand her condition, she is less and less able to focus on her creativity. By eradicating this disease, has society diminished a potential avenue of artistic merit? To create a ‘safer’ world may ultimately result in it becoming clinical, bland and soulless. But other issues jump out at different points in the play – the relationship between Jessie and her long term carers Tom and Caroline is well played upon and some of the scenes between these actors effortlessly tug at the heartstrings.
The set itself is medical and cold. Central square staging flanked on two sides by the audience is the setting for Jessie’s world; encased in a perimeter of cold white lighting, Lily Arnold has created an homage to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. All actors here are strong too. Be it new psychologist Charlie (Harrison) and his pregnant wife Rachel (Susan Stanley) or the primary carers Tom (Doherty) and Caroline (Kent), everyone is in tune with their characters’ backstories. Charlie’s split focus between home and work is particularly interesting and at times magnetic to watch, to the point where he only needs to be in the scene’s periphery for his expression to draw attention. Of course Jessie (Worthington-Cox) takes centre stage with a characterisation that is so well developed it disregards her age entirely – the grasp of craft that Worthington-Cox has reminds us all that age does not play a factor in talent. Some are just natural, engaging and passionate.
Good playwrights leave the audience wanting more, eager to experience another performance of a related work, maybe the conclusion of an unfinished story. Great playwrights leave the audience inspired, in discussion and often arguing about aspects of the material. If TOMCAT is an indication of James Rushbrooke’s future career then a great playwright is discovered. Having left that production with so many questions about the material running through my head, the key query I want an answer to is ‘When will his next work be ready for us to see?’ I will be in line to witness whatever it may be for sure.
TOMCAT is playing Southwark Playhouse until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see Southwark Playhouse website.