Oliver Whiskard takes a look at an original play written and directed by Joanna Harker Shaw
Father’s Daughter is a compelling, competently written, dialogue-driven drama which explores the nature and importance of families, whilst also being surprisingly funny. Cal, Lea, Annie and Nigel are four adopted children bought together by the recently deceased Albert Patten. They have always felt disconnected from one another almost to the point of hatred, and their lives were troublesome and miserable under Albert’s care. The play starts at the point when they are ready to move on with their lives, yet before they can, we see them forced begrudgingly back together for Albert’s funeral. The coffin, which ominously disturbs the minimalist space of the stage, acts as a prop and exclamation point for the subtle tensions and awkward family dynamics that propels the play along. Themes of the nature of familial ties are complicated further when Star surfaces, Albert’s illegitimate biological daughter, with a larger claim in Albert’s will than any of them.
The play is good at teasing out invisible strings of connection and comfort between characters that have not enjoyed each others company in the past. The bitter resignation of the children find a sense of unity in opposition to the sugary sweetness of Star whose lack of self-awareness is painful and funny in equal measure. The play does not over-emphasise any sense of transformation however, rather, we are shown that even in their own unique unhappy way, the bonds of kinship have an innate ability to bring them together, despite their troubles.
The subtlety of the writing would not have been conveyed were it not for the nuanced and composed performances of the entire ensemble cast. Once all of them were on stage it made for some fun and free-flowing exchanges that seemed very natural and realistic. There was not a moment when the dialogue felt clunky or forced. The most notable performances in my opinion were Cal and Nigel, played by James Fairhead and Ollie Harrison-Hall. Also notable is Issy Keane who beautifully delivers a long monologue which turns out to be a crucially emotive moment.
This is not to say there are no problems with the play. It was most comfortable in its exchanges of dialogue and its force of character. But when the moment came to wrap up the various strains of the narrative, it became slightly contrived. I am referring in particular (without giving anything away) to the manner in which Star left the play. Also, the central conceit of her character is that she is annoyingly idolatrous of her biological father, laying claim to him despite probably not having seen that much of him at all. My common sense finds this hard to understand, and it is not satisfactorily explained.
These small gripes of mine pale into insignificance in terms of my overall experience. It is clear that Joanna Harker Shaw is a strong talent and I hope she continues writing original plays of such a high quality. At the end of this engaging production that famous line from Dostoevsky came to mind: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Shaw has shown us on the stage an unhappy family which is undeniably unique and charismatic, and it was a pleasure to watch.
Father’s Daughter is on until the 7th of November in the UCL Institute of Education
Image Credits: Dante Kim