“He is now aware
That there are lives different from ours
Things won’t be the same”
One of Dennis Kelly’s earliest plays, Debris is being revived at the Southwark Playhouse for its tenth anniversary in a co-production between Openworks Theatre and Look Left Look Right and what a spiky little thing it is. A two-hander coming in at just a shade over an hour long, it depicts a brother-sister relationship unlike most others, the dysfunction in their childhood so warped that it could be taken from a Philip Ridley play, sibling rivalry taken to the next level.
Michael and Michelle have been brought up somewhat reluctantly by their alcoholic father after their mother died and it is clear that such trauma has resulted in emotional instability. Harry McEntire’s Michael starts off by telling us the story of his 16th birthday to find his father crucifying himself and then Leila Mimmack’s Michelle relates how her mother died at the time of her birth but it soon becomes evident that these are not necessarily the most reliable of narrators.
Personal histories are retold and reinvented, spinning a web around a kernel of truth that eventually comes to light, or does it. Part of the problem is that their inherent unreliability works against Kelly’s gradual edging towards revelation, one ends up longing for a fuller commitment to the warped strangeness of it all. Kelly’s reliance on Biblical imagery is shockingly striking on first glance but soon becomes superficial in the swathes of densely constructed text.
McEntire and Mimmack acquit themselves well though in Abigail Graham’s sinuous production. Signe Beckmann’s design creates a child’s play area gone horribly wrong and the pair negotiate its rocky terrain, as well as their own emotional journeys, with wide-eyed glee and heart-breaking sincerity as the damage of their childhood becomes increasingly clear. McEntire captures the duality particular well at one key moment where he threatens to throw a rock only to stop himself and cheekily grin at us, a steely glint to his eye suggesting it was a closer call that we might think.
The sheer verbosity of Kelly’s prose – there’s a substantial amount of monologuing here – means that Debris doesn’t always punch quite as hard as it should. We learn so much more about this pair when they are together, lost in a fantastical world of play that blunts the harsh reality of a world that has treated them so cruelly, than we ever do in the lengthy linguistic posturing. So it very much feels like an example of a playwright-in-progress, though the production supporting him is very close to excellent.