Simon Vinnicombe’s new play, Cradle Me, concerns a nuclear family and the ‘boy next door’. When the seventeen-year-old Nicholas is killed in a car accident, his friend Daniel, an unpopular loner, finds himself filling a void in the surviving family members’ lives.
But whilst we might imagine that each character would try to embrace Daniel as they did Nicholas, the relationship that he establishes with each is not so straight forward. The twelve-year-old Louise, not particularly popular herself, seeks his company and affections, but also recognises Daniel’s own vulnerabilities and teases him. In contrast, the father, Graham, realises that Daniel knew Nicholas’ tastes better than he, and takes an almost obsessive interest in him as a way of connecting with his own son.
But the most complex relationship is between Daniel and the mother, Marion. Forty-eight and feeling a failure, she is anxious to discover that her son was ‘successful’ (she delights in hearing that he didn’t die a virgin) and then cracks onto Daniel to make herself feel young and loved. Feeling lonely, he becomes equally enraptured with her, although it is his own inability to connect with reality that makes him believe such a relationship could ever work.
With the action taking place on the Finborough Theatre’s tiny stage, the audience seated only inches away, Cradle Me is an emotive and moving piece, made all the more so by some superb performances. Sarah Bedi as Louise demonstrates a great maturity in her acting, applying an element of precociousness to her vulnerable character, whilst Luke Treadaway as Daniel effectively portrays the awkwardness felt by a boy who is an oddball anyway, even without having to confront his dead friend’s family.
But it is the older actors who steal the show. Paul Herzberg as Graham captures the feelings of a man whose son died at the wrong time. At seventeen Nicholas was old enough to see his father’s weaknesses, without being mature enough to accept them, leaving Graham with unhappy feelings and memories. Sharon Maughan is equally effective in the way she toys with Daniel to help her grieve and give her confidence in middle age. She successfully portrays a woman playing on the edge, whilst erroneously believing that she can keep her behaviour within the boundaries of acceptability.
If, however, the play is successful when we witness tensions between characters bubbling under the surface, certain scenes feel melodramatic. The play starts unconvincingly as Daniel runs and consequently gasps heavily as he tells Marion of Nicholas’ death. His heavy pants are supposed to heighten the tension (perhaps even adding a sexual dimension) but just sound silly. Similarly, Graham’s shouting tirades as he breaks down feel overblown, whilst it simply isn’t believable that Marion would go as far as sleeping with Daniel. Presumably Vinnicombe believed it dramatically necessary to include such climaxes to the action, but the allusions to the disaster that awaits feel more successful than the realisation of it.
Things turn when Marion catches Daniel wearing Nicholas’ top. The thought she consequently has of sleeping with her own son repulses her, and then Louise and Graham also reject Daniel. It transpires that Graham realised the two had been sleeping together but saw that Daniel was making Marion happy. That, however, is no longer the case. As the family move house, clearly no-one has won, but we suspect Daniel has lost out most. Left all alone, we feel that he has first been enticed into this situation by the others, and then scapegoated.
And so, as Cradle Me ended, I found myself ranking the characters in the order of ‘most wronged’. It turned out to be an interesting exercise, made all the more so when I realised that in Vinnicombe’s play the question becomes so tantalisingly subjective that I doubt my final list would have matched many others’.