I had never watched theatre in a tube train until last night. I don't doubt you can, if you know where to look, but yesterday was a first for me. Miriam Buether's design for Mike Bartlett's My Child has turned the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs into an enlarged underground train, complete with seats for some and squashed standing room for others, advertising screaming slogans at you and intimate relationships being played out before you, whether you want to see them or not. I [Matthew Amer] got aboard for a bumpy ride.
Bartlett is another of the Royal Court's Young Writers Programme success stories to come through with his first professionally produced stage production as part of Dominic Cooke's inaugural season. My Child is a brief but effective debut.
The plot revolves around an unnamed man, played by Ben Miles, who is gradually being phased out of his son's life, seemingly because his ex-wife no longer wants to have to see him. As the play goes on he becomes more desperate before feeling forced to take action.
The setting and performance give us no real sense of time and space; lines, conversations and scenes blend and overlap in Sacha Wares's production. This doesn't matter, as it is the relationships that are the key to this play: Ben Miles's Man talks to his dead parents, asking why they brought him up to be nice and polite, allowing people to walk over him; Lia Williams's Woman – the mother of Man's son, referred to as Child –
has to parent both her child and her incontinent mother; the effect of Woman and new husband Karl's parenting can clearly be seen in Child, who is violent, spoilt and values possessions highly.
It is Child who gets all the best lines in the play, being given licence to be brutally honest and unrestrained. Phrases like "I don't like books, they're gay" slip easily from the mouth of young actor Adam Arnold who is a delight as the boy caught in the middle.
Bartlett manages to present the clash of parents, who both want the best for their son, without clearly setting his argument for either side or being overtly judgmental, though Miles's mild mannered, downtrodden Man is, at times, so weak that he draws sympathy. Wares's production also includes one of the most realistic fights between two men seen in recent times, and when Man goes mad, the scenery takes a beating that reverberates around the confined space.
The actors, when not involved with the scene, slip into the background of audience/travellers, which heightens the feeling that the sad events playing out in front of the audience could be happening to any member of the public; we wouldn't know them, but we still find their story gripping.
My Child plays at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 2 June.