I asked for some water at the Royal Court; because there’s clearly something in it. Not long after the success of Polly Stenham, another putative prodigy has broken through the ranks of their young writers programme.
Anya Reiss, who was seventeen when she wrote this and has just taken her A-levels, has somehow had time in her life to put together a snappy and lively debut, a familial expos, with an ear pressed firmly to the door of domestic detail.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, who also oversaw Stenhams debut, this family sketch is aggravated, comic and oppressive enough to resemble any middle class family viewed through the eyes of a teenager. Delilah is a smart and frustrated 12 year old desperate to grow up, Daniel is lank and depressed 21 year old lodger troubled by his romantic relationships, and Delilahs parents Nick and Vicky are experiencing the rapid breakdown of their marriage in the wake of an affair and unemployment. Everything is going pretty badly and is just about to get worse, when Delilah realises she is in love with Daniel.
Because if theres one thing Reiss doesnt possess as a writer, its innocence. And along with her keen ear for naturalist dialogue this makes for a refreshingly unsentimental account of familial dysfunction. She knows full well that there is a sado-masochistic habit underpinning the blood-sport of family argument. She knows the obdurate self-loathing of a troubled young man, the despair caused by an affair and job loss, the dynamics of age and lust. And to her credit she invests this all with neatly observed humour. Her script is leavened with swearing, almost to the point of liftoff. Take the romantic exchanges between Daniel and Delilah, which are so far from Heartbreak High as to constitute a historical amorous low: What do you want? implores Daniel. You fires back an impassioned Delilah. Oh shut the fuck up returns Daniel, with an attitude that is pretty much par for the course.
To be uncharitable for a moment, this kind of drama, while flashing and funny at times, can get a little tiresome. Between the acting and the script, the parents unstructured arguments and Daniels circular refusals got me quite actively disliking them. The frothy savagery at times felt like a sitcom pilot. Indeed one way to look at this play is as an entire series of My Family condensed into an hour and a half, and partially taped-over with live badger baiting. My Family is a tedious affair, and at some points you identify with the badger.
But snark aside, and wholly justifiably, many will see this as a play of wit and promise. And if the show wasnt littered with gilded youth already, teenage Shannon Tarbet here making her debut as Delilah, walks off with it. Perched amongst the action she radiates a puckish intensity, her carefully-animated face conveys that tempered, wilful intelligence of the clever child patiently bearing the stupidity of her elders. She turns in a determined foot-stamp of a performance, outstripping the rest of the cast. If the character she plays is slightly precocious, Tarbet may well be the real thing.
While it’s definitely fun, this play, like its protagonist, constantly proclaims I am not a child. Its a vicious and comic blend, that somehow remains light despite the relentlessness of argument. It keenly describes the punch and sucker punch of family life, even when not knowing quite how to pace itself over the duration of the bout. And to labour the metaphor, it talks a good fight. This is a play from a young contender punching above her age, and for some it will be a knockout. Yet while a few of her characters deserve one around the chops, its a little early to be talking about the belt.