A father finds himself being phased out of his son’s life. Denied access to his only child, he goes to extraordinary lengths to hold onto him.
My Child throws us into a violent world where good intentions count for very little, and offers an incisive, honest look at what it means to be a good parent.
This is Mike Bartlett’s first play and will be directed by Sacha Wares in her debut as Associate Director of the Royal Court. Her previous work includes generations, Guantanamo and trade.
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Dates in May
|Thu 3 May 2007||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs|
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What great theatre is all about…I can’t imagine there is any better acting..anywhere else in the country
— Sun Tel
Brutal, thrilling… unmissable
— Evening Standard4 stars rv. Ferocious… vividly visceral
rn. The Guardian
The theatrical equivalent of a firecracker
— Metro4 stars rv. A sharp splinter of a play… sends shockwaves through the audience.
rn. Financial Times4 stars rv. So raw it is hard to watch
rn. Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, 10th May 2007
UNDER its new artistic director Dominic Cooke, the Royal Court is on a roll, and seems to be discovering a richly promising young writer almost every other week.
Not since the golden days of Stephen Daldry a decade and more ago has the theatre experienced such a buzz, or scored such an impressive hit rate.
Following notable debuts from Polly Stenham, Lucy Caldwell and Alexandra Wood, the latest wunderkind to arrive at Sloane Square is 25-year-old Mike Bartlett with the punishing My Child.
Though billed as his first full-length play, it lasts only 45 minutes and I mean it as a compliment when I say that one wouldn’t wish it a moment longer.
In its highly topical portrait of a divorced father getting ever more desperate as his vindictive ex-wife denies him access to his son, the play conjures a world of pain and a devastating sense of the debased callousness of our age. So raw and anguished is the drama’s mood that it is sometimes hard to watch.
The Court has pulled out all the stops on this one, creating an entirely new space in the stalls of the main auditorium. Miriam Buether’s enclosed, claustrophobic design is based on a London Underground carriage, with the audience either standing or perching on stools on either side of the long, thin acting area. There are display advertisements on the walls, symbols of our slick, materialistic age, and when the action turns violent in Sacha Wares’s intense, unsparing production, audience members seem in danger of receiving the odd stray kick themselves.
Bartlett doesn’t name most of his characters – they are simply Woman, Man, Child, and the like – and his scenes melt into each other so that one begins even as another is ending. Our hero – and in Ben Miles’s grieving, desperate performance he really does seem like some kind of hero – has a vile and manipulative ex-wife who has poisoned their nine-year-old son against him. Not surprisingly the boy is a brat, openly calling his father a wanker and interested only in trips to Hamley’s and getting his greedy mitts on a new PS3.
But the father loves his boy with a great ache of despair and tenderness, and when it looks as though the child will be denied to him forever, he kidnaps him.
The play is more than a piece of propaganda for Fathers4Justice however. Bartlett harrowingly shows that often “to try to be moral and good and not selfish’‘ simply doesn’t work.
As well as Miles’s moving performance as the baffled, battered Dad, Lia Williams provides a persuasive portrait of psychological cruelty as his ex (she treats her own incontinent mother equally vilely), while the child actor Adam Arnold breaks your heart as the boy whose innocence is being destroyed by adults. The moment when he suddenly displays a fleeting tenderness towards his ill-used father brought stinging tears to my eyes.
My Child is a far from cheering play, but it speaks some profound and powerful truths.
Michael Coveney , Whats on Stage, 10th April 2007
The life of a man, said the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, is nasty, brutish and short, and the same could be said of this stunning almost first play by 25-year-old Mike Bartlett I have seen an even more complex, remarkable Bartlett play about racism and peer group pressure in the Hampstead Theatres Heat and Light young peoples programme – but he must count on the record as yet another highly promising graduate of the Royal Courts Young Writers Programme.
The Downstairs auditorium has been obliterated by designer Miriam Buether. The audience enters a tunnel that might well be a carriage on the Jubilee Line, with yellow tubular poles and handrails, where a young boy chases an electrified model car and actors you recognise Ben Miles, Sara Kestelman, Jan Chappell, Lia Williams in a bright orange hair-do pretend to blend in. Were standing in a space that does not want to be in the Royal Court but take us elsewhere.
The more indolent first night critics and guests chose to sit on bar stools running behind a thin aluminium table redolent of Eurostar. The rest of us stood around two raised terraces, arranged traverse-style, like rush-hour city commuters. One bar-stooled critic received a wake-up call when Miles kicked in a waste canister right by her writing arm. The theatres chairman chuckled. The theatres former casting director was in tears.
What might seem precious turns out to be anything but. Miles plays Man whose son, the boy, has been wrested from him after a split with Williams as Woman. Kestelman is Williams incontinent mother, Chappell a less insistent presence as Miles mother. No one in this play has a name apart from the boys new Dad, Karl (Adam James) who confronts Man after he has abducted Child and punches his lights out.
Its not that good, really, and too sentimental, but what I like about Bartletts play is its simplicity and starkness, its realisation that to make good theatre you can pare right down to basics and raw emotions, and honest dissections of relationships, like you can lacerate them. The play which runs for just 45 minutes is written in flinty, aggressive dialogue with one or two really potent, poetic paragraph speeches.
Man has a crisis of masculinity to deal with as well as a stifled paternal role, and Miles plays this with a fierce concentration that is almost overwhelming. He is jeered at by Williams rather nasty Woman, despised by his own son, humiliated by a prostitute who offers a blow job. And yet he is still the character we like most at the end. Little Adam Arnolds coldly manipulative, but vulnerable Child, is a complete pain. I dont like books, he says, theyre gay; brilliantly acted, though.
The direction by Sacha Wares her debut as one of new artistic director Dominic Cookes associates is outstanding. The play is pitiless and horribly convincing, the presentation lively, different, and interesting. You feel that if we do have to have yet more misery, and more proof that children rarely get the parents they deserve, lets at least have all this bad news with some theatrical panache. And that, in this case, we have, in spades, and in the performances of a remarkable cast.
No place to hide on the parental battlefield
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard, 10th April 2007
It’s a mercy for actors and audience alike that My Child runs at just under 40 minutes. Any more of this evisceration of family life and we would think it futile ever going home again. The actors would acquire even more bruises than they must have already. It’s a brutal, thrilling offering from a venue that is making itself urgent once more.
It’s worth the £17.50 ticket price – or £15 for standing, which constitutes the majority of places – just to see what designer Miriam Buether has done to the august space of the main house.
Gloriously, she has transformed it into unrecognisability, slashing capacity to create a traverse stage in the midst of what looks like an overgrown Tube carriage.
Actors emerge – and keep emerging, even well into proceedings – from among us. The house lights glare out unrelentingly. There is nowhere to hide, for anyone caught up in Sacha Wares’s hurtling production.
Which is just what Mike Barlett’s thundering script, in which the strong don’t so much defeat the weak as smash them apart and grind them to tiny pieces underfoot, needs.
Man (Ben Miles) and Woman (Lia Williams) are locked in a violent custody dispute over Child (Adam Arnold). Growing up in a marital war zone, the boy has learned to value only brute force and material wealth.
Miles, strained to snapping point, and Williams, all dangerous twitchiness, are tremendous in Bartlett’s fluid structure, in which there is no sense of scene change, merely a succession of edgy dialogues in non-specific locations.
Supporting characters are dismissed with barely a word. There’s no time to waste, onstage or off. Unmissable.
Man and boy locked in complicity and casual cruelty
Michael Billington, The Guardian, 10th May 2007
The first shock comes as you enter the theatre. The Court’s downstairs space has been transformed by Miriam Buether into a cross between a long Tube carriage and a shiny, metallic coffee bar. But the second shock derives from Mike Bartlett’s 40-minute play, which offers a disturbing glimpse of domestic violence and the brutal ethos that engenders it.
The action itself, executed by unnamed characters, is classically simple. A mother denies her ex-husband access to their nine-year-old son when he brings the boy back from a parental outing with a damaged arm. Derided by his former wife, who questions his paternal rights, the man decides to take the law into his own hands. He abducts his son, treating him as an emotional hostage, only to be tracked down by the boy’s stepfather and forced into a physical showdown. Finally the boy returns, none too graciously, to his mother.
Bartlett, in his first play, pins down with horrific accuracy the way children become the victims of warring parents. But he never lets you settle into easy moral judgments. The father, who has a first in philosophy and who has been taught by his own parents “to put others first”, seems strangely negligent of his son’s welfare. His ex-wife mixes maternal concern with vindictive rage. Even the boy is both a helpless shuttlecock and a spoilt brat who tells his father “I want a dad that’s strong and rich.” In Bartlett’s world, no one is wholly innocent.
While I admire the play’s ferocious honesty, I wish it had more space for social criticism. We live, Bartlett suggests, in a world where there is no room for losers, where to turn the other cheek is weakness and where children are drawn to whoever offers them the most sophisticated toys. However, Bartlett has no room to ask the really big questions. Who, one would like to know, is responsible for creating the kind of selfish society we now inhabit?
Even if the play is far stronger on private psychology than public analysis, it gets a vividly visceral production from Sacha Wares that gives new meaning to “in yer face” theatre. We are so close to the action that the climactic fight leaves the audience feeling endangered. And the actors, who erupt from our midst, survive intense, close-up scrutiny. Ben Miles as the rejected father, Lia Williams as the mother, Sara Kestelman as an incontinent oldster and Adam Arnold as the sullen boy seem barely distinguishable from the rest of us. And that, I guess, is Bartlett’s clinching point: that we are all guiltily complicit in the modern world’s casual cruelty.
Philip Fisher, The British Theatre Guide, 10th April 2007
Dominic Cooke has set out his stall early in his reign as the Royal Court’s Artistic Director. He clearly believes that the theatre’s primary purpose is to discover new playwrights of the highest quality and has bravely backed his instincts with three consecutive productions by tyros.
Polly Stenham has already shown real talent Upstairs with That Face and now Mike Bartlett suggests that Cooke’s initial discovery was more than just the result of good fortune.
My Child is a naturalistic drama in a doubly unusual setting. The theatre has been cramped down into a kind of rush hour tube carriage, losing the circle and much of the normal stalls space.
In fact, at times you forget that this is the large Downstairs auditorium rather its smaller black box sibling, such is the intimacy of Miriam Buether’s design. The feeling of involvement is then enhanced by the appearances of actors from the audience, often to deliver only a couple of lines before melting back into the entranced pack.
The play may last less than three quarter of an hour but it packs a mighty punch, literally in the violent final scene.
This is a contemporary story of a broken family and the waves that marital acrimony stirs up. Nine year old Child, played with great assurance by Adam Arnold, lives with Woman (Lia Williams) and her smarmy red-headed new husband Karl (Adam James).
Man (Ben Miles) wants access to his son but struggles to empathise with the little boy and gets bullied because he is intrinsically nice. There are intimations that their upbringings have made the Child’s parents what they are, Woman as hard as her ex is wimpish; and that society today won’t tolerate the loser.
The drama heats up as, first, Man kidnaps the boy and hides him in Scotland and then sadistic Karl comes to the rescue with stunning impact.
My Child addresses a number of important issues – broken families, child-beating (was it his father or Karl who hurt the boy?) and moral rectitude – all in the time that it takes for a single frame of snooker. It is a really edgy drama that shows Mike Bartlett to have an original and totally convincing authorial voice.
Sacha Wares’ compact production is at different points both tender and harsh and could well leave some visitors shaken but also stirred. With this cast and word of mouth, tickets were sure to be at a premium but the effort will be richly rewarded. Thanks to Dominic Cooke’s bright idea of offering 500 tickets to under-26s at a fiver each, that is guaranteed.
My Child – Time Out
Jane Edwards, Time Out 16/05/07
Having stood on the District line to Sloane Square, I was grateful to find a stool to perch on in Miriam Buethers spectacular transformation of the Royal Court into something resembling the tube. Most of the audience is required to stand and some of those standing may be actors. There is no hiding place for those watching as the characters emerge to perform in the centre. It can get pretty dangerous too a final gut-wrenching fight nearly sent my notebook flying into my neighbour.
Mike Bartletts play lasts for just 40 tense minutes. Its tunnel theatre for those with tunnel vision. Adam Arnolds Child is a victim of his parents divorce, but also guilty of the same manipulative blackmail as everyone else. Lia Williams febrile Woman has thrown Ben Miles Man out and re-married a wealthy, smug bastard called Karl (the only character to be given a name). The absent father struggles to maintain a relationship with his son who despises him because he is weak, poor, and reads books, which according to the boy are gay. We are told by the man himself that he is good, but the flaw in the play is that we never see it for ourselves, rather his increasing desperation as the Woman threatens to cut off all contact altogether.
The world of Karl and the Woman is our world, one that is materialistic and prizes a thuggish self-confidence over thought. These people, after all, emerge out of the audience. Its an impressive feat to take on so much in such a short time and Bartlett is helped by a devastating production by Sacha Wares who, following Generations, is beginning to specialise in creating this kind of environmental theatre with Buether. There were times when it occurred to me that My Child could have been staged in the Theatre Upstairs for a fraction of the budget. But it wouldnt have been half as exciting.
Jane Edwardes , Tue May 15
John Peter, The Sunday Times, 20th May 2007
This is Mike Bartletts first stage play. It lasts only 45 minutes, and Id never have thought that so much life, anger and pain could be contained in such a short span. Miriam Buethers set is a combination of a cafe, a playground and a carriage of the Tube except that youre not going anywhere. The actors are among the audience. They could be sitting next to you. This sort of thing can be clumsy, pretentious or both; here, you get a scary sense of involvement. This is a tragedy of a broken marriage, but without the comfort of a catharsis. She (Lia Williams) is tough, angry, ruthless. He (Ben Miles) is vulnerable, emotional, lost without warmth and without the sense of loving dependency he longs for from his son (Adam Arnold), an observant little toughie. Behind both partners there lurk inadequate but domineering mothers. Its a battlefield; but does fighting get you anywhere? Sacha Waress production, like the acting, is both savage and delicate.
Bone Cracker: My Child
Tim Walker, The Sunday Telegraph, 20th May 2007
In a kinder, gentler world, trifling matters such as nudity, four-letter words and blasphemy used to get theatregoers hot under the collar. Now playwrights and directors have to strain to find a good taboo. Two plays in London at the moment are having a go with incontinence. After the graphically enacted diarrhoea scene in Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Donmar the other week, we now have in My Child at the Royal Court a granny who soils herself in her wheelchair and has to be cleaned by her daughter.
It’s hard to see how these scenes could add a great deal to the sum of human knowledge. They are there simply to shock. Mike Bartlett, the writer of My Child, doesn’t even feel his incontinent granny is sufficient. He also throws in an oral sex scene, which, happily, ends at the point when the would-be recipient unzips his trousers.
This is unsightly theatrical acne which Bartlett will, in time, grow out of, and one shouldn’t let it distract us from what is clearly a very promising debut. What is more, it is staggeringly well acted. In fact, I would go further than that and say that I can’t imagine that there is any better acting to be had in London or, come to think of it, anywhere else in the country at the moment.
In the intimacy of the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, one felt as if one were caught in the middle of a terrible domestic dispute. It made me feel profoundly uncomfortable, but that was clearly Bartlett’s intention. Ben Miles and Lia Williams play warring parents. Miss Williams’s character – she is referred to simply as ‘Woman’ in the cast list, as he is ‘Man’ – has been involved with Adam James’s smooth but also rather sinister Karl.
The couple’s son, played by an unbelievably assured Adam Arnold – the lad can be no more than 12 or 13 years old – is an obnoxious, spoilt little brat who artfully exploits the situation, creeping to Karl, belittling his natural father, and, in his free moments, bullying his poor, long-suffering granny, played with great dignity, considering what she has to do, by Sara Kestelman.
Miles’s anguished Man eventually kidnaps his son, which leads to a fight when Karl catches up with him. Their confrontation is played out with such realism that I was tempted to leave the name of my chiropractor at the stage door for Mr Miles, whose bones I heard cracking every time he was thrown to the floor.
Although scarcely 45 minutes long, this production, bruising in every respect and directed by Sacha Wares in a space not much bigger than most people’s drawing-rooms, is what great theatre is all about. It jolts you unexpectedly out of your life, to the extent that, when it’s over, you don’t know where to look and what to say, and it takes you several minutes to come to. See it now, at this venue, and I challenge you not to be affected by it.