Reviewer's Rating

‘Akedah’, which translates as ‘binding’ is the first full-length play by a writer who has now gone on to later and greater success. It now comes to Hampstead Downstairs for its premiere. The setting is the northern coast of Northern Ireland, and is a tale of two sisters. Refreshingly the action is not focused on the politics of recent decades, and indeed the Troubles only appear tangentially, refracted through the lives of the cast. Instead the focus is on the human impact of large-scale Pentecostal churches, how they bind people to them, and – beyond that – the extent to which we are all bound in different ways to visions of our own pasts and futures.

The stage is set in traverse, with banked seats either side of a reception area in a bland community hall. Curtains can be drawn on both sides to indicate a change of scene of the passage of time. The slogan ‘Give Him Thanks’ on the wall at either end proclaims that this is the centre of a charismatic mega-church. A woman in her 30s – Gill – enters in a state of agitation, shortly to be joined by her sister – Kelly – who is a member of this church and considerably younger. It emerges that Gill has returned to visit her sister after long separation, but it is not entirely clear who initiated this renewed contact and what each sister is seeking from it. There’s already been an incident on the beach in which Gill seems to have attacked another member of the church whom Kelly was baptising by full immersion.

From this unsettled opening, where the audience has only partial information, revelation after revelation unfolds about the past lives of the sisters and the background to the present situation. Many themes are memorably brought to life and placed under scrutiny. First and foremost is the authenticity of charismatic conversion – is it an escape from a difficult past, a simplistic quest for meaning to replace trauma? Or is it something deeper than that altogether. The destructive impact of parenting, despite the best of intentions, is another which twists its way powerfully into the action as a third character is added to the mix, played with great emotional directness and empathy by Mairead McKinley.

The characterisation of the sisters is done with great skill. As Kelly, Ruby Campbell starts off all breezy and brittle confidence and conviction, but then adds detailed fault-lines to her portrayal with careful nuance. Amy Molloy has the even harder task of sustaining and varying a role that starts at a high pitch of fragile, neurotic intensity and then has to dig even deeper as we get to see the full scale of Gill’s past trauma. The rapport between the two players is evident and entirely successful in uncovering many layers of humour in the text as much as darker tones.

There are indications that this is a first full-length play – for example, the symbolism deployed can be rather heavy-handed, as with the parallel between the children’s toy the sisters share and the concept of a sacrificial lamb. Also it has to be said that the arguments and debate do begin to repeat themselves after a while. A shorter play would be an even better one, something I seem to be writing frequently in respect of new plays that come in at 90 minutes. But overall this is a very worthwhile experience, enhanced by expert performances and excellent production values by the creative team.