Miriam’s making an apple pie for her son. She’s made it countless times before – when he was a child, a teenager and a man… but this time is different. This time she’s in a prison kitchen, preparing the pie that her son’s requested as a final meal before his execution. As a clock ruthlessly ticks down the minutes on the wall behind her, Miriam pours all her hurt and grief into the last thing she’ll ever do for the child she loved, lost and found again only when it was too late to save him.
The premise of Jennifer Fawcett’s play is hard-hitting enough, but in the right hands it becomes absolutely devastating – and it’s hard to imagine hands more right than those of actor Edie Campbell. What’s important about Miriam is that she’s a nice lady, one you’d never expect to find in these circumstances, and Campbell radiates warmth and kindness from the moment she appears on stage. We like her, and so when her mask slips and we glimpse the pain beneath the smile, we feel it too. And as her reflections build gradually to a crescendo of rage and despair – against the system, against her son, and most of all against herself – we feel every single moment of it with her. It’s upsetting for all sorts of reasons, but largely because Miriam could be anyone’s mother; if such a horrific thing can happen to her, why not to any of us?
Whatever your views about the death penalty going in, it’s hard to watch Apples in Winter and not come away from it feeling sickened by a system that claims to offer justice but in fact does the exact opposite. 22 years after his crime, it’s difficult to think what Robert’s death can possibly achieve besides causing more suffering to more people, perpetuating a cycle of violence and revenge that should have ended long ago. And it’s hard to imagine what kind of life his mother will be going back to after today, knowing everything that she’s lost, and is about to lose, as a result of her son’s crime and punishment. The pie – prepared and baked on stage during the performance – might be perfect but everything else is shattered beyond repair, and the play’s last line, spoken with a heartbreaking finality, leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence for several moments after the lights go down.
I could probably write an essay on the quality of Fawcett’s writing, which is both sensitive and brutal in its exploration of a difficult topic. It raises so many points about not only the death penalty, but about family, and loss, and the failings of a society that drives people to crime and then denies them any opportunity for redemption. Director Claire Parker lets these words breathe, punctuating the production with moments of silence that give Miriam time alone with her thoughts, and the audience a chance to digest and process what we’ve heard. The play is also followed every evening by a post-show discussion, which provides further opportunity to explore the themes and impact of the play.
All I can really say about Apples in Winter is that it’s really, really good, with an immensely powerful one-woman performance from Edie Campbell that will leave you feeling shaken and devastated and furious. An absolute must-see.
Apples in Winter is at the Playground Theatre until 15th October.