Hampstead Theatre – until 4 June 2022
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Naomi Wallace’s dark and intriguing new play explores the bonds of family and friendship amongst a group of Kentucky teenagers. Set entirely in the basement of the Diggs’ house, Wallace introduces the characters as teenagers in 1977. Since their father’s death, their mother cannot take care of herself, so 17-year-old Jude (Shannon Tarbet) has had to step up and work hard to keep her family together, acting as both big sister and mother to Acton (Stanley Morgan). With their mother on strike, money is tight and sometimes they have no electricity. Fiercely protective of her brother, Jude is suspicious when he brings two boys home. Hoke (Alfie Jones) and Frayne (Charlie Beck) keep Acton safe from bullies at school, and she can’t figure out why. Hoke’s father is rich – he has his own car – and his business has links to the building where her father fell to his death, but he offers to pay for the trio to use the basement to hang out.
The language is occasionally stylised, making the teenagers’ immature pronouncements and arguments detached from reality as they discuss their sexual history and dreams for the future, emphasised by the stillness of Sarah Frankcom’s direction. Hoke is confident, arrogant but charismatic, promising his friends that he can take care of them as his dad can pull strings. Frayne is tough but gentle, and with burgeoning feelings for Jude, but he is a born follower and does whatever Hoke suggests. Their friendship with Acton seems unlikely at first, but this strange, sensitive, asthmatic boy is the ideal third wheel in their friendship as they try to make sense of the world. Frayne’s injured brother is a stark reminder that Vietnam is very recent history, and the confusing morals of that time lead the boys to have a warped idea of sex and consent. When Hoke challenges the others to Top My Love, by announcing the sacrifice he has made for the friendship, it sets in motion a chain of events that will scar their lives for ever. Frayne takes the challenge, leaving Acton to sacrifice something he loves – but all he has is his guitar and Jude.
What happens in the basement on Jude’s birthday is not shown on stage but is described by Acton in 1977 and Hoke and Frayne in 1991. Hoke, Frayne and Jude reunite in 1991 for Acton’s funeral and come down to the basement to reminisce. Acton’s death is revealed to be by suicide, and each character is still carrying the wounds and guilt of that night explaining their detachment from him, and Frayne and Hoke’s attachment to each other. Can the discovery that their understanding of what happened in 1977 is not as it seemed help them move on?
With descriptions of rape and a childhood game where Jude and Acton re-enact their father’s death imagining his final thoughts, there are disturbing issues, but there is a dreamlike flow to the story, punctuated by some killer one-liners. The game the siblings play creates the most dynamic scenes, with Acton and Jude tumbling in slow motion across the steeply raked stage. The cast all impress, creating instantly recognisable versions of each character at different ages. Shannon Tarbet’s spiky and brave Jude becoming the softer and jaded, but still passionate older Jude portrayed by Jasmine Blackborow. Frayne’s transition from unquestioning follower to deflated and embittered, but still unable to cut his ties with Hoke is effortlessly shown by Charlie Beck and Dougie McMeekin. Alfie Jones’ self-assured alpha male teenager is still there in Tom Lewis’s uptight older version underneath the self-protecting businessman, still full of empty promises and expecting loyalty. Stanley Morgan is wonderful as Acton – strange, wise and naïve, the character remains an enigma throughout, making the audience question who actually needed protecting in the Digg’s family.