After eleven years as the very successful artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, Michael Attenborough has chosen to return to Hampstead Theatre (artistic director 1984-1989) to direct Deborah Bruce’s first play, Godchild . Bruce, who is better known for her directing credits, examines the lives of three characters in search of meaning and one pot smoking looser. Lou’s life is disrupted when her 19-year-old godchild, Minnie, comes to live with her when taking up her place at university.
The play wants to be a comedy addressing the depressing fact that when you reach forty, you suddenly realise that while you might not have changed “inside”, the world sees you differently and time has moved on. Nothing new, you say? And you would be right. Lou is a self-centred fortyish (but don’t tell anyone) party girl who doesn’t care for growing up. Her boyfriend, Andy, is an insecure henpecked man and the young Minnie has serious social issues. You get the picture.
I won’t bother with plot twists, as there are few, save for one contrived coincidence about a fox on a fire escape. As the critic, Nathalie Haynes, has stated repeatedly, “tragedy without necessity is melodrama” and that is what Bruce gives us. The characters remain two-dimensional and throw at us enticing bits of information that only get left behind as the story unfolds.
Lou never comes to realised that she is the biggest baby in the room, Minnie’s difficult past is alluded to more than once but never clarified, Karl’s emotional depth can only stretch to the next joint and Andy is cringingly naïve as Lou’s boyfriend. Babies abound in case you missed the title. Minnie is the result of Lou’s BFF teenage pregnancy. Karl has a baby seat in his car but no baby, Andy might have fathered a child while at university (to be continued) and the upstairs’ drug addict drops off her baby on Lou’s doorstep.
Tracey-Ann Oberman plays Lou with exaggerated energy making it difficult to warm-up to the character. Michael Shaeffer as Andy is good as the wet boyfriend while Chook Sibtain plays Karl with adequate nonchalance. The real star of the evening is Pearl Chanda, who only just graduated from RADA, and gives a subtle and convincing performance as the uneasy and troubled Minnie. Michael Attenborough directs the play with assurance.
Ultimately, however, one is left dissatisfied watching Deborah Bruce’s debut play, as the dialogue moves along but the drama doesn’t. I couldn’t help but feel that the characters remained stubbornly stuck where they had started. Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, which focuses on new writing, is a great space that provides new talent with the freedom to master their craft away from the gaze of professional critics and I have seen great works there. Unfortunately, this piece is not one of them. Better next time.
Runs until 30 November.