The slumber may be shallow but the drama cuts deep. Based upon his own experiences as a practising carer in an inner London borough, and also informed in part by the Baby P case, Chris Lee’s pungent new play is a taut two-hander that explores the relationship between a young mother, Dawn, and her social worker, Moira, teasing out issues of dependency, trust and the challenges of intervention through the women’s interactions over a number of years.
The premise sounds worthy: “topical” in the worst way. But what’s admirable about Shallow Slumber is its eschewing of an obvious, journalistic approach. Distilled and apparently modest, the play manages to subtly gesture outward to a range of wider social and philosophical concerns, constructing in Moira and Dawn’s encounters a scenario that feels archetypal (the play is set simply in “one of our cities”) and yet specific enough.
And playing out in the claustrophobic confines of the Soho Theatre Upstairs, Mary Nighy’s sparsely-staged production takes on a genuine intensity and cumulative power. The structure of the piece borrows from Pinter’s Betrayal, with the action unfolding backwards. The play opens with Moira and Dawn’s re-encounter after some evidently traumatic experience and climaxes years earlier, on that day of revelation. The staccato style of the women’s opening exchanges feels excessively Pinteresque, too, but gradually both play and production establish their own mood and rhythm, as they work backwards - inexorably and inevitably - to a moment of horror that elicited groans of dismay from some audience members.
Lee is content to leave certain details of the women’s histories ambiguous. This, coupled with the year-spanning, reverse-chronology structure, means that elements of the play feel sketchy. But the upside of his approach is that the viewer is allowed plenty of interpretive space. Dedicated to “all social workers everywhere,” the play actually extends a clear-eyed, not-uncritical sympathy to both parties, offering a perceptive portrait of the two women’s predicaments and the shifts in power between them.
Ultimately, though, the success of such an intensely concentrated piece as Shallow Slumber rests in large part upon the quality of the performances and it’s hard to see how these could be bettered. Responsible for two of last year’s most memorable supporting turns as the outwardly cheerful mummy-in-meltdown in the Royal Court’s The Village Bike and as a passionate Emilia in the Sheffield Crucible Othello, Alexandra Gilbreath delivers once again here as Moira, offering a superbly astute characterisation. She starts (or rather ends) crumpled, hunched and wary, as a woman whose survival has taken a palpable toll; this gives particular poignancy to the final scene in which she arrives at Dawn’s flat for a visit, all professional eagerness and affability (with an occasional undertone of threat).
Gilbreath’s detailed and affecting work is matched by Amy Cudden’s startling performance as Dawn, which combines vulnerability and volatility, neediness and defensiveness, shrewdness and self-loathing, to devastating effect. The force of Cudden’s interpretation carries us through occasional moments in which Dawn is endowed with an awareness that seems somewhat unlikely, and the actress is especially impressive in her delivery of a long central monologue in which Dawn recalls her encounter with a couple so absorbed in their own quarrel that they left their baby on a train.
It’s fair to say that Shallow Slumber won’t be the jolliest night that you spend in a theatre in 2012. But, offering no pat solutions, this unsettling, insightful and haunting play certainly deserves to be seen.
Running until 18th February. Further information at the Soho Theatre website.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.