Begun all the way back in 2003, writer and director Jody Medland’s The Unspoken was chosen to be part of the Actor Awareness summer festival in July this year, after which it was immediately picked up by Barons Court Theatre for a two-week run. It’s an unconventional story, full of surprising twists and turns, and which does indeed leave a lot unspoken. It leaves the audience with considerably more questions than answers, along with a creeping sense of unease over both what we’ve seen, and what we haven’t.
It’s also likely to prove divisive among audiences, largely for its depiction of the difficult relationship between miner Jimmy (Will Teller) and his blind daughter Maggie (Hannah Tarrington). He’s raised her alone from birth following the death of her mother, and over the years has convinced her that he’s an architect, and that the two of them live in a beautiful house that’s the envy of their whole town. He does this, we’re told, out of love – but any sympathy we might have felt for his situation is lost in the opening moments of the play, when we hear him beating his daughter offstage as she begs for mercy. Nor is this an isolated incident; he repeatedly strikes her throughout the play, chains her up like a dog, and punishes her harshly just for talking through the door to regular visitor Father Alderton (Elliot Blagden).
He tells himself – and her – that he’s doing all this to protect her from a world that not only won’t help but may actively harm her, and the play’s unexpected final scene proves that he may have been right to be concerned – although, like Maggie, we never leave the house, so have no way of knowing for sure who or what is really out there. Regardless, it’s difficult to get past the fact that this is a relentlessly abusive and controlling relationship, which is built almost entirely on deceit, and which makes for very uncomfortable viewing.
This also means that the play’s central theme of classism gets a bit lost, because while we can appreciate the difficulties of Jimmy’s situation – the play is set in 1972, in the looming shadow of the impending miners’ strike – it still doesn’t seem like enough to justify his brutal methods. And though he ultimately takes steps to ensure a future for Maggie that will see her elevated in society, the way in which he does it, and in which the final scene is performed, leave us questioning whether he may not have just moved her from frying pan to fire.
Whatever your reaction to the play’s themes and content, however, there’s no denying the performances are excellent. Will Teller has arguably the toughest role as Jimmy, walking with great precision the narrow line between loving father and vicious tyrant, and there are moments when we do genuinely sympathise with his situation – if not with his reaction to it. Alongside him, Hannah Tarrington is painfully vulnerable as Maggie, submitting meekly – almost willingly – to her father’s abuse and taking scraps of comfort from the hours she spends listening to her radio. And yet despite the attempts of several men to rescue her from dangers she can’t see, she’s not quite the damsel in distress they all believe her to be – as Dr Rose later discovers to his cost. Elliot Blagden plays both Father Alderton and the doctor, and though we never see the former and only meet the latter for a few minutes, he brings an ambiguity to both roles that poses one of the play’s more intriguing questions: is seeing really believing?
There are certainly aspects of The Unspoken that feel problematic, and for that reason the play won’t be for everyone; I still haven’t quite decided how I feel about it myself. On the other hand, so much is left unexplained that it gives the audience plenty to talk about, debate and almost certainly disagree over. Sometimes it’s obvious what a writer wants us to take away from seeing their play; this is not the case here, and that alone makes it worth a visit – just make sure you allow plenty of time for post-show discussions.
The Unspoken is at Baron’s Court Theatre until 22nd September.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉