Merit, a two-hander by Alexandra Wood, begins with a bombshell. Against all the odds, recent graduate Sofia’s landed a job as PA to one of Spain’s richest bankers, but is appalled when her polite, middle-class mother, Patricia, questions what she had to give in order to get it.
And so begins the story of a complex mother-daughter relationship, against a backdrop of economic instability. It turns out the argument that opens the play is just one of many; these are two women with fundamentally different ideas on just about everything, not least money and social responsibility. Each scene moves us on a little in time and features a new disagreement, as Sofia’s fortunes improve, while those of her parents decline, and her mother’s driven to increasingly drastic action. Ultimately, the play ends on another bombshell, albeit one that’s somehow a bit predictable and yet still seems hard to believe.
Merit tackles some interesting themes, though, and skilfully introduces a cast of unseen characters, each with their own attitudes towards the economic situation. Most prominent of all is Antonio, Sofia’s boss, who gives away much of what he earns but still manages to live comfortably, and in doing so gains Sofia’s unswerving devotion and Patricia’s equally resolute disdain. As the trigger for most of their arguments, Antonio becomes almost a third main character in the story, a representative of his class whose actions – for better or worse – have an impact on so many.
Karen Ascoe and Ellie Turner both give compelling performances as Patricia and Sofia; the tension between them is palpable throughout as the advantage swings one way and then the other. Neither is perfect, and yet both at different times earn the audience’s sympathy, though we naturally side with Sofia pretty much from the start. Some of the dialogue feels a little unnatural – I can’t imagine too many young women use the word ‘rapacious’ in everyday conversation – but flows well between the two.
Tom Littler’s direction sees each scene change punctuated by flashing lights and loud music, and the two women mirror each other’s movements as they dress – perhaps the one and only time they’re in sync with each other. It’s almost like this is their time to prepare for the next battle, but who will emerge the victor each time remains in doubt. Meanwhile Phil Lindley’s set features a door at either side – one for home, one for work – with an open space in between providing an arena for Sofia and Patricia’s clashes.
Merit is an intriguing play, drawing on themes we’re all familiar with, but setting the story in a country where the economic crisis was much deeper, which enables the plot to go to greater extremes; the only problem is it’s so extreme it becomes hard to believe or relate to. Perhaps with a little more personal background, we could better understand how the mild-mannered Patricia ends up taking the path she does. Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking piece, skilfully staged and performed, with plenty to think about after you leave the theatre.