The set is as anonymous as it gets: harsh strip lighting and bland beige walls; a couple of green plastic chairs and a table or two. It is a bleak, blank space, but one not out of place in most offices or factories. It is part locker room and part canteen, and the detritus of lunch, coke cans and crisp packets, are still scattered across the tables. It is in this nothing of a room that Una and Ray meet for the first time in fifteen years.
He is in his fifties and she is in her late twenties. When they were last together he instigated a sexual relationship with her, running away with her to a seaside hotel. She was only twelve years old at the time.
In the intervening years, he has served his time in prison, been released and changed his name, found a job where no one knows about his past. She has tried to build herself a normal life (though blurts out with something approaching pride that she has since slept with 83 men). But it is clear that the events of fifteen years ago have tainted everything that has followed, that neither has been able to escape the past.
The play lasts a taut ninety minutes and during this time the couple veer through every imaginable emotion: shock, rage, even attraction, revealing that, in a way, they are still tied together. Blackbird walks a fine moral line, passing no judgement, allowing both characters to speak. Ray aggressively claims that he is not one of ‘those people,’ implying that there was something pure about his attraction to Una, that what he did to her was not abuse, that his love for her was real. She, in turn, describes the way she was drawn to him, the games she played to get his attention. But it never lets you forget that she was a child at the time.
David Harrower’s potent play debuted at Edinburgh in 2005, before transferring to the West End with Roger Allam and Jodhi May playing Ray and Una. David Grindley’s revival is a starker, more pared down staging. The previous production had a striking car park finale, but this has been excised, leaving just these two people alone with this dreadful thing between them.
The cast excel in emotionally exposing roles. Roger Daws is paunchy and grey as Ray, a man drained of colour, a man who hopes to blend into the background. Dawn Steele is far more volatile as Una. She is clearly torn in her desires and the audience struggle to decide whether she has come to hurt him or to rekindle things, or simply to see where life has taken this man who left an indelible mark on her.
The play is, at times, too balanced in the way it veers from one extreme to another, touching on every possible point of the emotional spectrum, but it remains a potent piece of writing, raw and unsettling.
Blackbird is at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames, until 5 April and then touring throughout 2008