Rob Tomlinson reviews a production that blends tragedy and comedy by mother and child friendly company Abooo Theatre
Vittoria Caffola’s The Replacement Child is a play which deals with one of the most heartbreaking situations imaginable; the loss of a very young child.
The play begins with the entrance of Grace (Caroline Read) into her father, Oscar’s (Rupert Hill) home a week after her 18th birthday. She is angry and confused about why Oscar didn’t send her a card, instead asking her to visit him. Naturally, she is upset and questions him. It is at this point that the play begins its examination of the past, and the events leading up to the birth of both Oscar and his wife Jude’s (Clare Cameron), two children.
The play’s staging is key to managing the three narrative moments, which are presented to the audience concurrently. The stage is divided into three distinct areas: a table stage right which represents the present, Oscar and Jude’s living room stage left, and upstage which becomes a hospital room with curtains and monitoring equipment.
This impressive use of the limited space in the Hope Mill Theatre means that when he is telling the story of the family to his daughter, Oscar is able to move effortlessly between the past and present. The lighting used to differentiate the scenes is a nice touch and the contrast between the domestic and hospital scenes is striking. At times, however, the movement of Jude between the home and hospital was hampered by the need to put her in a hospital gown which was slightly jarring.
The use of audiovisual technology to add another, more distant, layer of a happier past for the couple into the narrative was successful. The introduction of Carol, a midwife played by Julia Haworth, brings a lighter presence to the play as she tries encourage a distraught Jude and a doubting Oscar.
However these moments of relief cannot really move the play away from a sense of complete tragedy; indeed, the play’s most powerful moment comes from a soliloquy delivered by Hill at the end. He explains his experience of the day his daughter dies, and it’s delivered so well that the audience gains an insight into the mind of a man who has been destroyed by this event.
In a Q&A with the team behind the play, director Martin Gibbons explained that he wanted to ensure that the play’s heavy subject matter didn’t mean that people left the theatre with a “headache”. At rehearsal he created an atmosphere which was playful and fun and the resulting chemistry between the actors is evident.
This playfulness links to the aim of the Abooo Theatre Company, which is to provide a space where parents of young children can work. All involved seemed to have enjoyed the presence of the children at rehearsals, and this idea could provide a way to ensure that parents are not excluded from the creative industries.
The play is an intense and well-acted insight into a dark moment of these people’s lives and although the moments of comedy are not enough to change the tone from one of despair, the play is both a difficult and interesting watch.