People’s Play Award: In My Father’s House by Patrick Robertson (People’s Theatre, 29th October)
A father’s decline illustrated through phone calls and messages left by other members of the family. A bare set apart from a crucifix hanging centre-stage. A lyrical Biblical quotation. The tone was set beautifully, and the steadily-paced opening of ‘In My Father’s House’ at the People’s Theatre signified the themes of faith and division prevalent in this staggering piece of new writing.
After the death of his father, Adam returns home with his husband Ben. There he is reunited with his fundamentalist Christian mother Joyce and his sister Sophie who is struggling with her faith just before leaving for university. As they manage to get through the funeral, old tensions are brought up and new problems are discovered. The power of the piece lies in the gradual examination of its characters and the intelligent role reversal at its core. As the writer Patrick Robertson explained in his programme notes, it would be all too easy to write the story of a gay man whose visit home is blighted by a strict religious mother and so he chose the much more interesting route.
While Joyce’s treatment of Adam and Ben can be described as nothing below charitable, Adam’s rudeness and self-centred moralising proves genuinely shocking. And the audience were audibly frustrated with his behaviour at various points, particularly near the climax. Adam believes he is being victimised by everyone, and he’s got the Wikipedia quotations to prove it. Funny and shocking in equal measure, Robin Tudge portrays the difficult character with professional ease and… just about… gets you to sympathise with him.
Jake Wilson Craw is charming as the catty but caring partner and Sara-Jo Harrison an absolute delight as the sister caught in the middle. It is perhaps Penny Lamport as Joyce who deserves the highest praise as her stoic character takes a lot of beating before her mask is allowed to slip, and she plays both sides of her character with captivating, dignified authenticity.
Robertson’s writing melded perfectly with the subtle direction of Phillip Bradley, and our view into the lives of this normal but troubled family was as engrossing as it was truthful. It is surely the sign of a good playwright that relationships between all the characters were interesting and had something to say. The many questions regarding sexuality, the sanctity of people’s beliefs and what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ resounded long after the performance had finished. Also, as I was lucky enough to read the script before rehearsals had begun, I also know that the development process added several new aspects which helped tie the piece up more coherently.
The People’s Play Award is a beacon for new writing talent in the north-east and there’s surely a lot more to come from this year’s winner, as there has been from previous victors such as Alison Carr and Peter Straughan. If you are a fan of challenging drama, this clever and startling new play is definitely worth a look.