Theatre review: Blackbird
Harrower's moral provocations make for a hugely rewarding production
In the corner of a litter-strewn, nondescript room, two stacks of chairs, one large and one small, lie beside one another. In the centre, 56-year-old Peter and 27-year-old Una behold one other for the first time in 15 years. David Harrower's Blackbird sees the pair sift through the ashes of their dead relationship, ended when Una was just 12-years-old, as director Gareth Nicholls presents an ethical morass within which the spectator is challenged to make their own judgements.
The production's desaturated set is as grey as its morals, providing an understated yet powerful setting for a play that delights in toying with the audience's sense of right and wrong. Despite her apparent victimhood, Camrie Palmer's Una remains curiously at ease throughout. Her relaxed posture and playful remarks exude confidence, and she retains power in most of the pair's exchanges. Ray, by contrast, remains consistently on the back foot, desperately defending his 'three-month stupid mistake'. Yet, his protestations are convincing. Paul Higgins' accomplished portrayal is beguilingly sympathetic, at times drifting uncomfortably close to likeability as he exploits the glimmers of humour in Harrower's script to maximum effect.
Nicholls' assured direction further complicates the picture, finely accentuating the nuances of Harrower's moral maze. The pair's changing relations are subtlety reflected in the use of space, while Ray's tendency to mask himself at key moments casts into doubt his impassioned pleas for absolution. Some small issues mar the performance – Harrower's sparse but complex script, filled with broken sentences and sudden interjections, is occasionally awkwardly delivered, while the portrayal of Una lacks some precision – but Nicholls maintains a striking cohesion that makes for a powerful piece of theatre.
Central to this success is the production's refusal to arbitrate over the ethical quandaries the play presents. Building to a startling climax, Blackbird is a finely-crafted production that nourishes the grey areas of Harrower's text, fostering the emergence of an independent moral realm whose disquieting impact endures long after the play's conclusion.
Citizens Theatre, 25 Feb–24 Mar, 50p–£20.50.