American writer Gregory Bean has chosen London for the world premiere of Keepsake. Although a small scale production, performed by four actors in a fringe theatre above an Islington pub, this play hits as hard as any on a major stage and will provoke thought and debate for a good while after the dimming of the stage lights.
Following her father’s suicide Samara, the adopted daughter of Egyptian immigrants to the USA, returns to the family home in Massachusetts where she and her half-sister Abra finally confront the past, its aftermath and the chain of events that have ensued over the following twenty years.
The Red Lion’s intimate playing space is well suited to a family drama. The action takes place in the contemporary kitchen complete with fridge/freezer (for storing ice cream and beer), disconnected telephone (the bill has not been paid because of the disruption of Yassir’s suicide), an iPod for background music and a dining table for discussions. The proximity of audience to players makes it extremely difficult to resist being drawn into the situation and permits the onlookers to observe every nuance and expression on the faces of the characters.
Lou Broadbent’s Samara is taught and confrontational, carrying the burden of the past with her and to her AA meetings. The revelations of what happened to her as a twelve-year-old are as shocking to the audience as they are to the older sister, who is forced to address how she and her parents dealt with the incident and of how the adopted sister believes this was the catalyst that prompted the deterioration of her relationship with their father.
Dilek Rose, as the older of the two siblings, exhibits a growing sense of pain, horror, misery and realisation as she finally faces up to the events of that past summer. When skeletons are unlocked from closets they bring with them secrets and lies. Realities that have been deeply buried must be painfully exhumed in order to exorcise the past and force the acknowledgement of further untruths and hidden half-truths.
As ever the past informs the present and Keepsake presents the family’s history as a series of dimly lit shadows that complement the sisters’ memories. Yassir (Allon Sylvain) returns as his younger self in encounters with his wife Safweh, a role that Rose doubles with that of Abra. Bit by bit this tautly written play unravels the story of secular Muslims living in America, the dilemmas that are faced in arranging the funeral of a man who has committed suicide, the fears of mental illness, and of the ties that bind families, whether or not they are related by blood. Above all it demonstrates a need to address and deal with horrifying occurrences before their avoidance ignites a wound that festers until it bursts, damaging everybody concerned.