Luna Gale**** (Hampstead Theatre)

Posted: July 2, 2015 in Theatre

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Children neglected and abused, social workers facing intolerable case loads, a failing department placed under outside management. This could be any inner city borough in the UK, but, in fact it is Iowa. Chicago-based writer Rebecca Gilman centres her play on Caroline, a social worker five years from retirement who is well aware of the limitations of her job, but still struggles to avoid becoming emotionally involved with her cases. It falls to her to take over the care of baby Luna Gale, born to drug-addicted teenage parents Karlie and Peter; she will investigate, formulate a care plan, report to the Courts and, effectively, determine the child’s future. Will the parents become fit to take Luna back or will Karlie’s “Crazy Christian” mother be allowed to adopt? Under Michael Attenborough’s direction, the first half suffers from a problem common to many issue-driven plays, in that it is worthy but rather dull; however, it builds to a second half of deeply affecting human drama in which Gilman takes the story in unexpected directions and brings in explosive topics. Much of this success is down to a finely-judged performance from Sharon Small as Caroline, exuding warmth, but wary of the rule book and of the perils of becoming too closely involved, as she is reminded when a former “client” comes back into her life. Rachel Redford and Alexander Arnold also give moving portrayals as the parents, helped by Gilman’s seeming determination not to make them stereotypical young junkies, and Caroline Faber is quietly chilling as Karlie’s religious zealot mother. Gilman’s writing sparks to life when she begins to pick at knots which tie child abuse to the Christian church, but the most striking aspect of her play is how, for much of it, she makes men almost peripheral figures, by focussing on the damage that women can inflict on each other. Original and thought-provoking, this is a drama as relevant here as in middle America.

Performance date: 1 July 2015

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