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Things I Know To Be True

by on 6 November 2019

Secrets and Lies in SW15

Things I Know To Be True

by Andrew Bovell

Putney Theatre Company, at Putney Arts Theatre until 9th November

A Review by Andrew Lawston

There can be no more foreboding sight to greet a theatre audience than a set depicting a well-kept family garden. You know that you’re in for two hours of intense drama and revelations. The better-kept the garden, the more intense your evening is likely to be.

And so it is with Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know to Be True, a relatively new play (2016) which has swiftly captured the imagination of UK theatre companies, and has now been taken on by Putney Arts Theatre in their spacious auditorium. Young Rosie Price has her heart broken on her gap year, and returns to the family home for solace, only to find a family on the verge of tearing themselves apart.

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“This garden was the world” as various characters tell us throughout the play, and appropriately we never really leave it. Tom Sainsbury’s simple set comprises a single flowerbed filled with roses that bloom and wilt throughout the play according to the changing seasons, with a garden shed off to one side, and projected photos and video clips on the backcloth. Seating lines both sides of the stage, and the cast gamely make sure they play to all sides of the auditorium throughout the evening.

ThingsTrue1Director Frances Bodiam ensures that the cast make maximum use of the spacious playing area, and more. Characters frequently enter through the aisles, and from the back of the theatre, so the audience is never quite sure where the next revelation will come from. Frances also made the very sensible choice of asking her cast to perform in their own voices, rather than attempting Australian accents. As the programme notes, Hallett Cove is broadly similar to any suburb throughout the Western world. So while the setting remains Australian, with references to dollars, Sydney and Brisbane, the play’s themes are revealed to be truly universal.

ThingsTrue4After a tableau of a phone ringing at 3am, the phone call every parent dreads, Rosie opens the show with an upbeat performance by Natasha Henson, who talks about her gap year, and Berlin, in lively conversation with the audience as she roams the aisles and the full space of the stage. It’s a shame that, as her extended monologue draws to a close and she makes her way back to Hallett Cove in Adelaide, we never really get to see much of Rosie again as a character; she becomes the figure in front of whom much of the rest of the play unfolds.

As Rosie arrives back home, the family cluster around and there is a joyful reunion, though already tinged with ill-tempered sniping. Penny Weatherall’s powerful and dominant performance as Fran quickly establishes that the family is something of a matriarchy, while Aidan Kershaw gives a performance that is often wonderfully understated as Bob, the quietly proud retired working man who has long tired of his gardening.

As the other siblings come and go, we see the play’s funniest moments, well-observed exchanges about traffic, laundry, and the father being unable to operate the coffee machine, that will be familiar to many families. There’s an enjoyable pace, and the cast are in complete control of the material, as lines are swapped with huge energy, but crisply and with confidence. But there’s an edge to many of these interactions, when eldest daughter Pip (Emily Prince, in a tight and controlled performance that always seems to be on the point of cracking to reveal her character’s deep inner pain) becomes strangely upset at the discovery that brother Ben (Theo Leonard in a brilliantly manic turn, bounding around the stage with barely repressed nervous energy) still brings his washing home. And when Bradley White’s enigmatic Mark refuses to answer questions about his recent relationship break-up.

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With his untucked shirt and slightly aloof attitude, Mark seems distinct from the rest of the family, even as the rest of its members begin to fragment and grow further apart as the play progresses. When the reasons for this detachment become clear later, he and his two parents enjoy a powerful scene filled with resentment, love, and quiet desperation. “Stop swearing!” bawls Bob at one point, unable to articulate his actual feelings, and resorting to his parental role to try and regain his footing in the conversation.

With a play that is so new, and so popular, it doesn’t feel appropriate to talk in detail about the plot, beyond mentioning that although there are frequent clues towards the problems and preoccupations of most of the characters, this is no soap opera, and their true secrets generally surprised the audience by being just out of kilter with our expectations.

The play is also a visual delight, both with the inventive images and clips projected by Tom Sainsbury, and with Carrie Cable’s costumes, which seem perfect for each character, from the manic Tom’s slim-fitting suit, to Bob’s dishevelled gardening clothes, Rosie’s floaty outfits, and Fran’s simple but elegant green dress, which somehow manages to perfectly mirror her nurse’s uniform with a brooch pinned in the place of her watch.

The masterstroke of Things I Know to Be True is that despite the many revelations and divisions between family members, the audience are never in any doubt that the characters all love each other deeply. This is a bold and assured new production of a play whose popularity is growing at an impressive rate.

Andrew Lawston
November 2019

Photography by Steve Lippitt.

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