Rules can be bent for special cases, but at what point do those rules have to start applying? And why can those rules be bent? That is one of the many conundrums that afflict the adults in this unsettling, complex American show about young Luce who may have brought explosives to school.
Simon Dormandy directs a sparse, pared-back production in which the tension mounts incrementally and wonderfully throughout the play, the cast putting in solid performances all round. Luce seems like a fragment of the American Dream. Adopted from a war-torn African country by white liberal couple Amy (Giedroy) and Peter (Whitmey), He’s intelligent, popular, admired by everybody and in the football team. Martins Imhangbe plays a wonderfully unreadable potential psychopath, charming to a fault, and really makes the question of whether the explosives are his believable throughout. But the play’s bravery is in its resistance to attributing any destructive desire to his past, or any political radicalisation. Much of the script focuses on perceptions of perfection pushed by Luce’s firebrand teacher (Gordon) and his expectant parents, on how pressure to perform and be an example is choking on every level of life. The parents’ fear of not truly knowing their son is what is scariest for them, that this model human being they’ve tried to raise is actually some other, angrier person.
This is an avowedly apolitical play, focusing on social responsibility between loved ones, but it’s hard not to link it to the Prevent strategy being used in British schools at the moment. How much violation of privacy and thought control can be morality justified for potential safety? Is this intrusion actually exacerbating things? You have a moral duty to raise your child well, but how much autonomy do they deserve? The script is wonderful at raising questions like these to consider rather than answer, making it even more unnerving when the parents dither over their options. Indeed, much of the dithering is a little circuitous, and the first half-hour did feel a bit slow compared to the rest of the show. When the ex-girlfriend (a greatly nuanced performance from Elizabeth Tan) tells her side of the story to Amy, things start heating up because the show is brave enough to continue playing with ambiguities.
There were a fair few waivers in accents, but the overall quality of performance is high. The quality of David Gregory’s sound design was marvelous, an eerie, subtle hand in building the setting before each scene. Dick Bird’s set is similarly muted, a long dark mirror, a table and three chairs being all that is needed for offices, homes, cafes, and chillingly reminiscent of a police interrogation room.
The script revels in ambiguity and moral grey areas, and is all the better for it. This is a deeply human treatment of a subject that is usually handled didactically. Luce pushes its audience to do some hard thinking, with a fine cast of characters and an explosive energy.
- By JC Lee
- Directed by Simon Dormandy
- cast: Mel Giedroyc, Natasha Gordon, Martins Imhangbe, Elizabeth Tan, Nigel Whitmey
- Southwark Playhouse, London
- Until 2nd April 2016
- Review by Oscar Balfour
- 13 March 2016