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Like mushrooms, babies grow in rubbish. They construct themselves from rotting leaves, coke cans, syringes and empty packets of monster munch and wait for their parents to find them. I know this to be the truth. Because I found one.
As one of the UK’s most celebrated playwrights, Dennis Kelly’s work manages to balance the everyday with unspoken terrors, revealing the darkest threads of human nature coursing through the domestic and ordinary. In Orphans, a couple’s dinner is interrupted by the arrival of the woman’s blood-spattered brother; in Love and Money, a happy marriage is slowly destroyed by a looming undercurrent of consumerism and debt.
Debris, Kelly’s first play, was originally staged a decade ago at Theatre 503 – still one of London’s brightest new writing beacons. Although the disjointed setting is perhaps his most abstract and nightmarish, the themes of family, siblinghood and a yearning to belong are more than familiar.The new production at the Southwark Playhouse marks the ten-year anniversary of the play’s premiere, yet it doesn’t feel like a revival. Director Abigail Graham has created an altogether too-relevant world that’s tragic, brutal and – at times – even darkly funny.
It’s no mean feat to attempt to stage Debris; with two characters, the majority of the play is essentially a double stream of consciousness from a brother and sister cast aside by an adult world that’s failed to protect them. They flit from disturbing monologue to disturbing monologue, often with conflicting, grotesque and ever-more unbelievable events. Their father is a neglectful alcoholic who eventually commits suicide on Michael’s sixteenth birthday; their mother died long ago under circumstances that are frequently explained and abandoned in favour of a better story throughout the play.
The debris of the title could refer to the pile of abandoned rubble in Signe Beckmann’s stark wasteland of a set, or indeed the brutal existence of the two characters, from which they’re trying to salvage a path for themselves. But Debris is also the name of a child – a baby found by Michael in the bushes that the two adopt, breastfeeding him with blood and sheltering him from the bleak world that surrounds them. It’s this child that finally brings a sense of meaning and belonging into their lives, and shatters them at the play’s devastating climax.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with Debris is the way that Kelly’s trademark black humour bubbles underneath the fractured narrative and tumultuous monologues. Balancing the play’s humour and pathos was never going to be easy, but Graham and her cast manage to navigate the nuances instinctively from start to finish. As Michael and Michelle, Harry McEntire and Leila Mimmack are perfectly matched. Despite his almost-laughable attempts at sororicide (“Girls eh? What can we do with ‘em?”) and her eventual betrayal, their relationship is weirdly tender throughout. Amongst the rubble and dysfunction, all they have is each other.
The play’s opening monologue – in which Michael recounts walking in on his father’s self-crucifixion – is gory, visceral and heart-poundingly hard to sit through. But McEntire uses it perfectly to set the tone for the entire production, relating the tale in a matter-of-fact manner that allows it to be simultaneously brutal and comedic. Michael is not as disconnected as we might first believe however; his attachment to “my boy Debris” is heartbreakingly real, and a sharp indicator of how lost and abandoned he really is.
Mimmack’s Michelle is nervy and almost bird-like, moving as easily around the stage as she does between different stories of their mother’s demise. Gory images of a pregnant woman choking on a piece of chicken, or Michelle gestating in a rotting corpse, are hard to stomach – but, as her monologue reveals at the plays’ end, the pitiful truth is altogether more painful, and it’s much easier to bury it in legend.
What the production communicates so successfully is that Michael and Michelle’s bizarre storytelling is the only method they have of communicating their plight. The play might only have two characters, but the missing adult figures loom larger than life; the siblings’ wreck of a father, the deceased mother and the creepy “Uncle Harry” are glimpses of an adult world which – through manipulation, death or even simply neglect – has failed to look after its young. From their first entrance as the audience take their seats, as they shuffle around the space in clothes that are stained, baggy and too big for them, we’re agonizingly aware that the pair are fending for themselves. Michelle’s chalk drawing of her mother, scribbled on the wall before the opening monologue, provides the only physical glimpse of the adulthood throughout the play.
Beckmann’s blank, bare staging is lit beautifully by Jack Knowles, stark in places with moments of dimly lit focus in the play’s more tender moments. We’re given a feeling of a post-apocalyptic wasteland – devoid of people, buildings or any form of life. It’s a world where the characters have nothing really to do except survive, allowing instead for their beautifully crafted personalities (and Kelly’s imaginative dialogue) to indicate that there is so much going on just under the surface. Debris is not a neatly packaged narrative; its audience’s struggle to distinguish truth from reality and fill in the gaps represents the mechanisms of the damaged protagonists to make sense of their destructive and broken background and to find where they belong.
And perhaps that’s why this revival feels so relevant. It may be ten years since Debris’s premiere, but after the 2010 London riots, record highs for youth unemployment and the recent explosion of media coverage into child abuse cases, the plight of maligned and forgotten young people feels incredibly pertinent. What this production does so beautifully is turning a story that’s fractured, disturbing and at times downright unsettling into something unmistakeably human – and perhaps altogether too recognizable.
Debris runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 17th May. See the theatre website for more information.