Moving away from home for the first time is a milestone in any teenager’s life. But coming home again can be just as hard. In her first full-length play, Leaves, which premiered in Galway and now comes to the Royal Court, Lucy Caldwell explores the torment, the heartache and the misunderstanding that surrounds one young woman’s inability to cope with the wide world, and the act that changed everything back home. Caroline Bishop went to the first night at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
Lori is 19. She has been at university in England for just a few weeks, but now, as the play opens, we hear she is coming home. The atmosphere round the dinner table is fraught, her parents are tense, her youngest sister excited, the middle child caught in between. But the anticipation of Lori’s return to the family home in Belfast is not happy. A few weeks away has altered this family forever, because Lori attempted suicide.
Caldwell’s portrait of each family member is closely observed, and the fall-out from Lori’s inexplicable act on this ‘ordinary’ Belfast family is poignantly believable. The father, David (Conor Lovett), buries himself in his work out of an inability to deal with his eldest daughter’s actions; mother Phyllis (Fiona Bell) has strung herself up on an emotional high wire, desperately needing an explanation that her daughter cannot give, blaming herself and neglecting her two younger daughters out of obsession with her first-born’s state of mind. Of those two, Poppy (the charming and naturally talented Daisy Maguire, sister in real life to Penelope Maguire’s Clover), has the straightforwardness of an 11-year-old, delighted that her sister has returned and simply wanting everything back to normal; Clover, 15, is old enough to feel the complex mixture of hurt, anger and love that Lori has provoked.
While these relationships form the backbone of the play, Caldwell also asks bigger questions about growing up in 21st century society. In offering an explanation of her suicide attempt, Lori (played by Kathy Rose O’Brien) says that she feels incapable of believing in anything. Her mother cannot understand, feeling her daughter should take advantage of choices and opportunities that she never had, pushing her to escape the confines of Belfast. But does this infinite amount of choice mean Lori is left floundering? Is it too difficult to find your way in this huge, opportunistic world?
The final scene rewinds to the day Lori left for university, a late summer day they shared in the garden of their home. Phyllis and David are excited for their daughter, delighted she is embarking on the rest of her life. Lori however, wants to tease out the last happy moments she will share with her family before leaving for permanent adulthood. Perhaps it would be safer to stay at home.