Theatre

Taking Care Of Baby @ Hampstead Theatre, London



cast list
Abigail Davies
Ellie Haddington
Nick Sidi
Christopher Ravenscroft
Michael Bertenshaw
Zoe Aldrich

directed by
Anthony Clark
“The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence.” These words scroll across a bank of television screens in the opening seconds of Dennis Kelly’s unsettling new play about the ease in which the truth can be distorted in our information-saturated culture.

Told in documentary style, Taking Care of Baby tells the story of a young mother, Donna McAuliffe, who has been imprisoned, and subsequently released, for killing her two children. It’s a depressingly familiar set-up, resembling any number of stories that have recently graced the headlines, as well as bringing to mind the National Theatre Of Scotland’s production of Aalst which covered similar thematic ground.

Donna is released from prison after she is diagnosed by psychologist Dr Millard as suffering from Leeman-Keatley Syndrome, a condition that could cause an otherwise loving mother to harm her own children. This is despite questions being raised about the doctor’s research methods, and indeed, whether the syndrome exists at all. Of course, after all this, Donna’s life is no longer her own – her marriage inevitably crumbles and her mother Lynn, an ambitious local politician, finds her career initially jeopardised and then, perversely boosted, as her family’s tragedy becomes tabloid fodder.

But Donna’s innocence or otherwise is not really the issue here; Kelly is far more interested in the way her story gets pulled apart for the personal gain of others, how her truth, the reality of what happened to her children, ceases to be as important as the truths that other people impose on her. These include Dr Millard, who has built a reputation on discovering and diagnosing Leeman-Keatley Syndrome; a slimy local hack journalist who is milking her story for every penny he can; and even Donna’s own mother, who finds that her sympathetic appearances on Richard and Judy aid her ascent up the political ladder no end.

The play becomes increasingly cynical as it progresses, with Kelly even poking away at the very idea of verbatim theatre itself, by including scenes where the characters are interrogated by the disembodied voice of a playwright. He slowly chips away at our sense of what we’re seeing, toying with audience expectations as the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented.

Donna is played with real power by Abigail Davies. Her speech is nervy and hesitant, and pain is evident beneath the surface of every action, every utterance. Unfortunately alongside her superb performance, the secondary characters fail to blossom, and Kelly undermines some of his swipes at the media by painting the tabloid journalist as sleazy, leering stereotype. The character of Lynn, played by Ellie Haddington, is also rather broadly written and performed.

Anthony Clark’s direction is sharp and well-paced, knitting all the disparate strands together and Patrick Connellan’s memorable set, with its creepy centre-piece, adds to the overall impact of the piece. But there’s a nagging sense of missed targets as the play reaches its increasingly satirical conclusion. A sense that Kelly is trying to say too much about too many things and, in doing so, loses the focus that elicited so much uncomfortable laughter in the first half. This is an undoubtedly ambitious and intelligent, if rather cold, production deliberate, yet elliptical in its writing but its one that in the end proves just too slippery for its own good.



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