Alice Birch’s new play, [blank] focuses in on the experiences of women in the justice system, encountering it from a variety of angles. We see women with addiction issues, women facing abuse, children in challenging parental situations, women who have ruptured family relationship. We see women guards and officers, psychologists. Young children. Adult children.
The cast play multiple roles, and the stage becomes multiple spaces. What is stunning is how little the actors change scene to scene, all wearing dark trousers, a coloured top, and white trainers. While they change yet stay the same, the space is increasingly messy, bearing the remnants of what came before, but also deconstructed. As the space deconstructs, the use of video increases, capturing the images of these women and their trauma in time.
Evocative of Churchill’s Top Girls dinner party, there is a scene in the middle of the play where the actors are at a dinner party - kind, open, middle class, with posh dishes, and lots of wine. The party is all long-time friends except one, a new girlfriend, whose presence sparks discussion of misbehaved pasts, which quickly seep into the current time. Wine is consumed, then drugs, and suddenly these women who have introduced themselves as being on the professional side of the justice system are offending themselves. This scene’s most chilling moment is when the young daughter comes in, asks for water, and wine is poured out of a wine glass to give to her, cocaine still on the table. The stark differences of experience based on the class of these women versus the others is haunting. Birch demands we, the comfortable theatre audience, confront our comforts and lack of true efforts to help others.
As always, Birch’s use of language is exceptional - words are weapons from her pen, and in the mouths of these actors.
The only oddity, for me, was a break into song toward the middle - while the lyrics made sense, the choices of movements and performance style in this moment felt stilted and half-baked. For me, it was jolting, but not as jolting as I think it was intended to be.