Skip to content

Motherhood and Bitter Apple Pie: The Distance

by on 16 November 2016

The Distance

by Deborah Bruce

Wild Duck Theatre at Old Sorting Office Arts Centre, Barnes until 19th November

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Would you die for your children, or are you dying to be away from them? For most parents the answer to this question lies somewhere towards the middle of this wide spectrum.  In Derborah Bruce’s tightly-knit play, now running at the Old Sorting Office theatre, the very nature of parenthood is unpicked and the strands re-ravelled.

The play was given its first two outings in collaboration between the Orange Tree and the Crucible theatres (Paul Miller’s two in-the-round spaces) in 2014 and 2015.   Now it has been brought back to Richmond by Wild Duck Theatre, a brand-new company, the brain-child of well-known local director Susan Conte.   As a dark drama sprinkled with light humour, The Distance is very much a style in which Conte excels.

Three ex-student flatmates, now thirty-something yummy mummies, meet in Kate’s house in trendy Brighton, daughter tucked in bed. Bea is definitely dying to be away from her children, about 10,600 miles away in fact, for she has left them in Melbourne, Australia. The third friend, Alex, is anxious, for although her teenage son is only in London, 50 miles away, it is the summer of 2011, and there is rioting on the streets!

The Distance asks, even if the distance is 11,600 miles or 50 miles, can you leave motherhood behind. Bea can. Alex can’t.  Kate has definite views.


Bea (Charlotte Skinner), Alex (Tarryn Meaker) and Kate (Elizabeth Ollier)                 Photograph by Marc Pearce

Actually, Kate has definite views about everything, and definitely knows that that should be everybody else’s views too. For Kate, motherhood reigns supreme and forthwith she has booked air ticket to take her and Bea straight back to Melbourne to claim custody of Bea’s children.   Elizabeth Ollier played the hyperactive hyper-pushy Kate with taut precision which put over the character’s acerbic edginess and frayed nerves.  In the hands of a less skilful actress, this could have been all zingy and twangy, but Ollier showed us another side of Kate.  Her clinging anxiety about motherhood arose from Kate’s difficulties in conceiving Iris, her much wanted child, after eight years of IVF treatment.

The pivotal character is Bea. Is she Euripides’ Medea cutting up her children to spite her husband or Ibsen’s Nora, walking out to a life of freedom?  Bea is unsure of her own motives, guilty to feel so released from her family, but surely determined not to go back.   One wonders why then does she take her frangible feelings to her flaky friends, knowing that there is not a hope in hell they will bridge the canyon of her ethical dilemma.  Does she strike out for personal freedom or uphold the social conventions of maternal instinct … a sort of nurture versus nature self argument?   Charlotte Skinner as Bea came across as a character in conflict, mild and soft, preoccupied and passive on one hand, but steely sure and doggedly determined on the other: a well-studied and nicely drawn depiction.

Dippy hippy Alex, three children, three fathers, provided the light relief.  She sets out to be a referee, something she is not cut out to be, between the views of Bea and Kate, but eventually dives out for “a spliff in the summer house”.  Tarryn Meaker was great in this part, giving the audience the wild nervous energy that the part demanded.  Alex, however, is constantly distracted by the news of the London riots and is desperately trying to contact her teenage son, Liam, who is somewhere in the increasingly threatening metropolis.

It is not clear what Bruce, as author, is trying to achieve dramatically from the backdrop of the riots. Does the news of the spread civil unrest in London justly reflect the escalating tensions in this house in Brighton?  Does the burgeoning violence of the great unwashed in the Great Wen intrude on the tribulations of these well-heeled suburbanites?  Or is it simply a device to bring the teenager into the plot?

If it were the last, then we should give thanks, clumsy as the device is, for the character of Liam is finely written by Bruce and outstandingly acted by young actor Ben Dimmock. Liam has eventually been fetched from London by Kate’s long suffering husband, Dewi, and is been disturbed by Bea at 2:30 in the morning, when in the typical teenage position of being asleep on the sofa, hidden head to toe by a giant duvet.   Bea has come into the living room to get a better signal to her laptop.   She is trying to convince herself that she doesn’t even want to Skype her children in Aus.   When Liam awakes to discover this, he is aghast, and we discover that he is one of the few characters who talks adult sense, albeit in his gauche teenage way.  Dimmock brilliant acted the awkward but tech-savvy Liam, his general unease, his embarrassment at being treated as a man by Bea, his concealed pleasure in recounting his Outward Bound course, and his ability to give untutored advice.  Dimmock was a picture of hair-ruffling, ill at ease, troubled Liam, the teenager at his most philosophical.

Bruce may be a feminist writer, and you could arguably say that of Ibsen or even Euripides, but it is the adult male characters who bring relevant perspective and gentle humour to a drama which is otherwise tightly focused on the fragility of female friendships and their veracity.   Dewi and Vinnie, husband and brother-in-law to Kate, are down-to-earth brothers from the Welsh valleys.  Dewi, an ex-pop musician, is now as gentrified as his house, which out-of-work Vinnie is helping to improve in lieu of rent.  (The summerhouse, or is it Dewi’s recording studio, is his handiwork.)

Chris Mounsey, who is well versed in cut-glass characters, was not an obvious casting choice for the blokey Vinnie, but had him to a tee, giving a very sympathetic take on a character reviled by the snobbish Kate.   Mounsey accurately depicted the way that Vinnie’s take-it-on-the-chin laid back attitude was eroded by Katie’s acid remarks until he heatedly pours out his scorn for her.

Dewi is the put-upon husband, who one feels is the bedrock of this household. Gradually, however, when we find that Kate has thwarted his attempts to have access to his daughter from a previous relationship, we feel greatly for him, as we learn, with some sympathy, the origins of Kate’s overweening impulse for control.  Phil Lee Thomas, as Dewi, gave a secure, fluent and very natural performance that said all about his character.  On the opening night, when there was some indication of first-night nerves until the cast (very rapidly) got into their stride, Thomas seemed to be a steadying influence.

The play was parenthesised by establishing scenes in which we learn of Bea’s life with Simon, her Australian husband, including their chance (and highly risky) first meeting sharing an hotel room in Kuala Lumpur. Andrew Williams, in the role of Simon, tended to under-project and to throw away lines, some of which were crucial at the beginning of the play and weakened its opening.

Kate describes her home as full of “tot and tat” and “grubby”, but her expectations must have been very high, for it looked pretty smart to me, even for Barnes. It was crisply lit by Martin Walton. The audible setting of techno-sounds was in the hands of stalwart, Martin Pope, and there was very appropriate original music by the incomparable James Bedrock. The new very smart fixed configuration at OSO of raked seating and proscenium did compromise Susan Conte’s wonted fluid style, but spilling the action beyond the fourth wall was probably best avoided. However, The Distance was well suited to the intimacy of the OSO and was very well received by full houses.

This was a very polished production, nicely balanced, with nothing overstated (the various Welsh and Australian accents just lightly touched) which formed a well crafted inaugural production as Susan Conte’s Wild Duck Theatre took to the wing.

The Distance is a parable about the values of modern society, a study of anxiety and guilt, of the authenticity of friendship, and the contrarian wisdom of youth. Nevertheless, its overarching theme is of the nature of motherhood, of fatherhood, and their mutual roles.

Are you dying to be away from your children … or are they dying to be away from you?

 Thomas Forsythe

November 2016



One Comment

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Things I Know to Be True | Mark Aspen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: