Tuesday 18 October 2011

Accidents happen

Saved, Lyric Theatre, London

Although Edward Bond’s play, Saved, is known for some extraordinary episodes of violence, it actually begins on a tender note. Sure, Len and Pam flirt filthily in the opening scene – but they’re really bad at it. Their small talk is appalling. They’re more interested in sweets than sex. And, when these two twenty year olds finally slide onto the sofa, they’re cosy rather than coital. In fact, it’s only when Pam’s father, Harry, interrupts them that things hot up. Suddenly, Len and Pam are presented with the opportunity to shock – and it is this, rather than the sex itself, that really turns them on.

This thrill that Len and Pam experience via the impact of their actions – rather than the act itself – is a theme Bond carefully explores and magnifies throughout Saved. The play is set in the 1960s, in a crummy area of South London, enveloped by bleak horizons. It is a place where dreams drown out reality and where make-believe is the only life worth living. It is an environment in which projection is everything; where people carefully construct their characters and conceal their disappointments.

But in a world where actions rarely have consequences, where hopes and threats are almost never fulfilled, accidents happen. As the mutual deceit continues, people slip through the cracks and are lost in the gap between what people say and think, how they act and how they actually feel. At first, this gap results only in stumbles. Len and Pam fantasise about their futures together and talk excitedly, but falsely, of big houses and marital bliss. They lie to each other to keep each other happy. But it is Pam who is the bigger pretender and, when she finally drops the dream and dumps Len, now a lodger in her family’s home, the two are left to stew under the same roof.

Slowly and sneakily, the building blocks of this couple’s misery are piled up around them. Pam (a brilliant, blackboard-screeching Lia Saville) falls in love with Len’s friend, Fred, and when Pam bears Fred’s baby, it is Len who must suffer the screams. But this is a house in which the mum and dad share a room but few words. This is a house whose gleaming white walls (what a brave, suggestive set from Paul Wills) cover up but still radiate the crumbling structure beneath. This is a house accustomed to papering over reality. When Pam’s baby screams and screams, she stays on the sofa, calmly caking on her make-up. And, when it becomes obvious Fred’s passions are fizzling out, Pam simply exaggerates her own emotions, scrambling to accommodate his shortcomings.

With such sustained tension, something is bound to snap. And, when the snap finally comes, Bond translates it onto a bigger playing field. When Pam abandons her baby in the park, after enduring a horrifically self-abasing argument with Fred, a gang of boys swarm around the pram. Immediately, the pretence begins. This is not a pram but a weapon, and the boys gleefully steer it around the stage, mowing down anything in their path. Next, they have a stab at waking the baby up. They pull its hair and pinch its face. They pretend to be helping the baby but they’re really just hurting it.

The biggest pretence of all, perhaps, is the idea this baby is even alive. So drugged up by its despairing and self-deluding mother, this baby is barely breathing. Pam’s pretence – that she is keeping her baby calm when she is really preserving it in a half-dead state - only feeds the gang’s game. The pretences pile up on each other, taking us further and further from any acceptable form reality. The cooing turns into taunting. The pinches turn into punches. The boys attempt to lure dad, Fred, into the game but his postulating indifference to his baby has tied his hands. He is unable to save his baby because he refused to admit its existence. 

Likewise, the boys find themselves unable to cease their game, because to do so would be to drop their bravura. Their act has become too entrenched to give up. The boys spur each other on and the violence escalates. It is nearly impossible to watch and yet, the slow burn that Bond establishes and director Sean Holmes so carefully sustains, means it is also impossible to look away. Why look away when the boys start punching, when you somehow suffered them smearing shit on this baby’s face? Why hide your eyes at the stoning, when you coped with the earlier punches? Just what does this say about you? 

In the second half, following the horrific incident in the park, the disconnect between surface chat and interior agony grows more severe still. The arguments get louder, the denial ever more defiant. Tiny incidents take on magnificent consequences, acting as a vessel for all that unspoken anger and despair.  A lost Radio Times stimulates a blazing row. An ironed shirt takes on an almost divine, diverting importance. A snapped stocking seems like the end of the world.

With such a heightened reality at play – and with such self-deceiving characters – Saved could have been easy to step back from. But Sean Holmes never allows us such a release. The performances are grating but they’re still human: there’s a softness to Morgan Watkin’s Len, a vulnerability about Lia Saville’s Pam, a dazed bewilderment behind Calum Callaghan’s swaggering Fred. Even Pam’s parents, so stultified in their misery, breathe warmly every once in a while.

Perhaps most frightening is the final scene when, despite everything this family has endured, they begin to piece themselves together. Surrounded by a silent but but potentially peaceful domestic scene, Len sets about fixing a chair and, in the final moments, holds the chair triumphantly aloft.  Human beings, it seems, can cope with just about anything – but should such perseverance make us cheer or weep?

Till 5 November 2011


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