We were invited to go and review ‘Luna Gale’ currently on at the Hampstead Theatre until the 19th of July. Our teacher Huw writes his thoughts on the play and says it’s a must see!
I’ve not always been an English language teacher. I’ve spent much of my working life in youth work, often working with vulnerable young people at risk of drug abuse or crime. In this field and indeed in teaching, you have to be aware and sensitive to the issues that might affect people’s lives, to offer support, report problems and refer to other services where necessary. This is one part of a wider safety net of care for those for whom life choices and outcomes put at risk, or put the lives of others at risk.
Luna Gale focuses on child welfare, but in doing so the welfare of young adults, in this case young parents, and the role of the state and other institutions in protecting, supporting and ensuring they can have, as the plays central case worker puts it, “some kind of life”. I was relieved to find the play a nuanced and complex unpacking of the tensions and issues – easily cliched or portrayed in black and white – that make such work so hard to manage. It skillfully and movingly captures the simultaneous sense of futility and necessity inherent in such work.
The set is framed by an imposing wall of oversized files, boxes and folders, a looming backdrop of bureaucracy. Beneath this, a variety of small scale routine settings provide the space for the dramatic narrative. Scenes are played out in corridors, waiting rooms, from which we shift to a kitchen, an office, an observation room and a booth in a chain restaurant. Swift set changes are lubricated by a revolving floor and in the blackouts tense and foreboding music contrasts with the everyday nature of the scenes. So much social work takes place in these kind of spaces – set between vending machines, untidy wall posters, token framed prints – but the musical interludes and the vast set beyond the set remind us that within these mundane spaces the huge drama of human lives is unfolding. These humdrum surroundings also reflect the strange contradiction between the theoretical humanity of such work and the soulless settings it is conducted in.
The play is constantly challenging, and manages, just, to avoid pushing us into any easy demonisations or sympathies. The opening scene revolves around the abandonment and neglect of a baby by those unable to care, an instinctive and powerful trigger for our disdain. Our sympathies are then naturally shifted to the concern and responsibility of the distraught grandmother in the second scene, but shift continuously throughout the play via the consequences and determiners of human actions in a narrative that revolves around the care options for the never directly seen baby (save for the pram or stroller she rests in). Set in the bible belt state of Iowa, there is a tension between the secular and religious methods of support, and while the play demonstrates the potential parallels between religion and addiction, rather than their opposition, it manages to convey some understanding of the lure of religious love, epitomised by the frighteningly convincing Corey Johnson as Pastor Jay.
Case worker Caroline, played with skillful naturalism by Sharon Small, is an almost constant presence as she bends and shifts to try and get the right outcome for her clients. Her treading of the fine line between love and professional conduct is subtly portrayed; hugging, the buying of presents and physical restraint all handled with knowing nods to the concomitant emotional attachment and distance required by those working in this field – both practically and mentally.
But by the end of the play we are left with a sense that, despite her valiant efforts, she is never able to be the true agent of change. Her efforts may provide the opportunities for others but wider forces are always at work, and in the end no one really notices her quiet impact. “It’s the least I can do” she remarks to the young mother Karlie late on, “yes it is” Karlie replies straightforwardly. Her success story, Lourdes, ultimately treats her with disdain and father of the child Peter ends distant and unmoved by her expressed care. And it becomes increasingly clear that Peter, not Caroline, is the quiet protagonist here. He is, as Caroline tells him, the ‘good person’ of the play, in so far as he is the good person who can truly make a difference. It’s his child after all. Caroline doesn’t have her own. As she says she ‘loves children too much’, that’s why she ‘hasn’t had any’.
Alex Arnold as Peter is also the stand out performance among an excellent cast, his goofy mannerisms and comic style don’t hinder him handling three pivotal and challenging scenes of varying emotional requirements in a touching and thoroughly believable way. This remarkable portrayal is crucial to building our sympathies and creating a moving if uncertain conclusion.
This is a play of interconnected scenes, each a small piece of drama in itself. This sensitive and powerful production does justice to the thought provoking script that forces us to ask questions of what we should be doing as a society and as individuals to improve our lives and the lives of others. Questions about the true meaning of love.
Thanks Huw for this terrific theatre review! Hampstead Theatre is very close to Camden Town and tickets start at £10. There are also student discounts! ‘Sparkling scripts and great casts’ – Metro 2014. To find out more about the Hampstead Theatre click here.