“If we don’t like it, we can get on a boat to the Isle of Wight”
Following the well-received, sharply funny Becky Shaw into the Almeida is David Eldridge’s new play The Knot of the Heart about middle-class drug addiction: this is a review of a preview performance on Monday 14th March. The play stars Lisa Dillon, for whom the central character was specifically written, as comfortably middle-class Lucy whose recreational drug use leads to her losing her job as a children’s TV presenter and sets her on a downwards spiral into genuine hard addiction as her mother and sister struggle to deal with the impact it has on the family.
On Peter McKintosh’s set of sliding glass panels and doors, dividing up the revolve into ever-shifting living rooms, hospitals, bars in and around Islington, we see how Lucy’s life crumbles around her, reduced to stealing from her sister and forced to move back into her mother’s house, unable to extricate herself from the grip of heroin no matter how grim things get. But what Eldridge is also interested in looking at is how Lucy’s key relationships are affected and defined by her addiction, how parental and sisterly love can actually help to enable it due to differing attitudes to drugs: at one point, the mother actually goes out to buy the heroin for her daughter from a guy at a bakery on Upper Street, after she is raped by a different dodgy dealer, at another she wonders whether she should have stopped Lucy’s teenage dabbling in pot, despite finding it innocuous at the time given her own youthful experiences in the 60s.
Several aspects just didn’t work for me both within the production and in the writing: having established that drug addictions can affect people of all classes and that in this particular case, there’s a deal of responsibility which has been shirked by both child and parent, Eldridge then employs a disappointing twist away from this which undermined much of what had gone before for me in the search for an overly neat ending. And the passage of time is clumsily handled, I think the play covers three years or so, means that key scenes are hurried: no sooner has Lucy arrived at a crisis centre, unwilling to participate, is she spilling her guts to the care worker and starting the rehab process. I’m no expert on addiction, and I do see why it is dramatically necessary to do it this way to fit into this format, but it all seemed rather easy. Likewise, there are conversations between mother and daughter about where she will stay post-rehab which happen at unrealistic times, the dramatic license employed just doesn’t convince.
And I’m not sure if I was missing something, but some of the dialogue was bizarre to say the least, with lines that have just never passed human lips, ever, creating a real sense of artificiality that seemed to fly in the face of the drama playing out in front of us. Abigail Cruttenden’s older sister was saddled with many of these clunkers whereas Margot Leicester’s mother ended up with a whole lotta repetition, a device which one assumes was aiming for lyrical gravitas, but is wearing from the start. Stanton’s wise-cracking care worker is nice but given little to do than trot out counsellor-speak and I was most impressed with Kieran Bew whose programme credit reads ‘All the Men’ and is close to a masterclass in sharply defined little character studies as a series of convincingly different men who impact on Lucy’s life.
I have to say that The Knot of the Heart was a big disappointment for me. Despite Michael Attenborough’s experienced directorial hand at the tiller the evening never flows like it ought to and for a show about addiction, it plays it far too safe with Lisa Dillon’s slightly vanilla performance, only very rarely does it get to the real darkness that haunts addicts and lay it bare. Altogether too middle-class and ‘Upper Street’ to be worthy of a clown’s recommendation (a middle-class Upper Street type himself if you must know!).