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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Lyric Theatre (Hammersmith)


  Billy Seymour, Tom Padley and Bradley Gardner/ Ph: Simon Kane

Edward Bond’s seminal 1965 drama is horrible: terrifying, brutal, painfully raw. Everyone should see it. Because however nightmarish its vision of blighted lives, of horrifying savagery and desolation, what it portrays is no bad dream – it’s frighteningly, chillingly real, and at least as much so now as it was when the play first sent out shock waves at the Royal Court. This rare revival, staged with an arresting minimalism by Sean Holmes, is acutely sensitive, piercingly intelligent and searingly affecting.
Of course, the play’s most notorious scene is the one in which a baby, abandoned in its pram in a park by its despairing, disassociated mother, is tortured and eventually stoned to death by a group of young men – among them, the infant’s probable father. However well prepared you are for it, the sequence makes grisly, agonising viewing; and, seen in 2011, it calls to mind much-publicised cases of child abuse in Britain, specifically Baby P, Victoria Climbie and James Bulger.
The brilliance of Bond’s uncompromising theatrical vision, though, lies largely in its stark simplicity. With the child hidden from view by the hood of the pram, we focus on the perpetrators, and it becomes startlingly clear how close to childhood, mentally and emotionally, they remain. They hoot, holler and giggle like playground bullies; they dare and outdo each other in acts of revolting sadism; they have an immature, undeveloped sense of moral responsibility and consequence. Even they, in less frenzied moments, can see this. “Grow up,” snarls Fred (Calum Callaghan), the baby’s father, before being goaded into joining in with the abuse. 
As for the mother, Pam (Lia Saville) – who, having helplessly admitted, staring at her offspring with distaste and incomprehension, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” has drugged the child – she, too, shows signs of infantilism. The play’s opening sees her bringing back to the home she shares with her parents a youth, Len (Morgan Watkins), for casual sex. The pair tells silly jokes and share sweets before getting down to business. They don’t even know each other’s names.
The play vibrates with social anxiety and anger. Its characters are adrift in an inequitable and consumerist world in which they have no stake. The baby, heard crying offstage, untended, throughout an entire scene in which Pam puts on her makeup in preparation for a date, is only ever referred to as “it.” Moments of tenderness or attempts to connect are often met with savage rebuttal. Len, who moves into Pam’s family home as a lodger, repeatedly tries to “look after” her and her child, though she spits his efforts back in his face. Pam, meanwhile, hopelessly chases Fred, Len’s friend, who responds with equal callousness. Mary (Susan Brown), Pam’s mother, humiliates her husband Harry (Michael Feast) by indulging in a cringe-inducing flirtation with Len. Their marital relations ultimately descend into physical violence, in which Mary is more concerned about damage to her teapot than to Harry’s cranium.
Cruel as it is, there is compassion, too, in Bond’s writing – humane fellow feeling for these people groping through existence. As Pam desolately cries, “You couldn’t call it living.” The direct line from here to the In-Yer-Face drama of the Nineties – most conspicuously, the work of Sarah Kane – is striking, both in thematic and stylistic terms, Bond’s spiky, fractured dialogue echoing down the decades. Yet Saved remains fresh and urgent, and Holmes and his cast serve it impeccably. The acting is unflinching, with Watkins’ pale, gangling Len is particular heartbreaking, tentatively reaching out to a better reality he senses must exist, but has no clue how to access. The production is not easy to watch, and some audience members walked out. This is a disturbing reflection of the world we inhabit, but it is one we should all find the courage to confront.


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