At once fascinating, amusing and mesmerising, Akedah balances weighty topics, sharp humour and intense character studies to create an absorbing psychological drama dealing with trauma and healing. Through the identities of two estranged sisters and the event of their unexpected and fraught reunion, themes from evangelical Christianity to childhood abuse are explored. This dark story flows without dragging and effortlessly draws you in as multiple layers are peeled away and years of suppressed emotion and complex history come to a head.
The absolutely remarkable Amy Molloy plays the live wire that is Gill, Kelly’s older (by 15 years) sister, who has acted as surrogate parent to Kelly as the two grew up in care with a coercive father and a mother who was an addict. Gill makes an unexpected visit home to the north coast of Northern Ireland after three years having not seen Kelly – who she seems to both loathe and adore in equal measure. Gill is shocked to find that eighteen year-old Kelly is unrecognisably changed, now part of the expanding Christian community, Harvest. This church community train their volunteers in ‘a verified therapeutic process’ in ‘seven modules’ (‘a certificate in talking shite’ as Gill sees it) and baptise their members in the wild sea on their doorstep – a poignant motif representing chaos to Gill but a symbol of God’s majesty for Kelly.
Layers of trauma and a lifetime of neglect have left Gill quivering at the prospect of another human’s touch, and terrified by noises and voices intruding in on her reclusive world – an isolated world maintained by a job as a cleaner in a huge office , ‘miles away from anywhere’. Kelly is equally dealing with trauma, but, at least on the surface level, she has found solace and a new sense of purpose in the church to propel her away from her painful childhood and towards a new life, or the promise of one.
Kelly, played by Ruby Campbell, provides a brilliantly desperate performance as she acts as the pivot about which Gill wildly spins. Whilst Kelly calms Gill down, she also unintentionally winds Gill up and pushes her limits. Tempting Gill with the promise of healing becomes Kelly’s obsession, and this obsession isn’t tempered until the excellent Mairead McKinley enters as Sarah, the sisters’ mother – a quietly composed but wounded woman, desperate to make peace with her daughter, Gill.
In their race to be healed, both sisters disagree on the other’s chosen means of surviving and dealing with their past, whilst taunting and tantalising each other in an attempt to coax the other back into their familiar world. Suddenly, the two do not share the same language or sense of identity anymore, and the play works well where it finds humour in the clash between Kelly’s new, self-aggrandizing Christian jargon and Gill’s down to earth mocking in response.
At its heart, this play explores Gill’s agony, as her only ally in the world seems to have become unrecognisable on her return home – their footing as sisters has disappeared as Kelly now lives in an alternative universe to Gill, with a new family and a new “home”.
The tone of psychological intensity, drama and unsettling obscurity is set from the beginning, as Gill’s opening moments take place behind translucent grey curtains. Paranoia shapes every word that passes through Gill’s mouth, and the soundscape cleverly mimics this fear by escalating the noise of Kelly’s pinging phone throughout the production – also a symbol for coercive control. When Gill is alone, this noise becomes unbearable and creates a visceral atmosphere of panic.
I am still thinking about the conviction and energy that Amy Molloy brings to the character of Gill, and how quickly she jumps from humorous to acutely distressed, and from a recoiling and defensive individual to an eccentric and expressive entertainer. Abrupt mood oscillations from Gill, as she swings like a pendulum from being propelled by fear to love, triggers each new wave of action and development in the sisters’ conversations, and ultimately drives the play forward. The sparse and grey set, with plastic stacking chairs and one plant, is reminiscent of an institutional setting or a liminal space like a waiting room, which chimes well with the theme of poor mental health and different types of constraint.
Hampstead Downstairs theatre specialises in new writing and definitely feels like a contemporary, fresh and exciting place, both conceptually and physically. The space is adapted for each new play and Akedah works effectively with the stage in the middle surrounded on two sides by tiered seating. This set-up creates an intense and intimate feel since the stage is surrounded by a small audience who are both close to the action and slightly elevated above it, whilst also facing each other like a mirror view – an interesting element for such an intensely psychological play. Akedah’s playwright, Michael John O’Neill, won the Bruntwood Prize Original New Voice Award in 2019; this is the premiere of his first full-length play, Akedah, and it’s not one to miss.
Image: Ruby Campbell and Amy Molloy in Akedah, credit Helen Murray.
Review by Lucy Evans
Lucy’s passion for the arts began with drawing and painting at a young age and developed later on into a love of landscape painting and a degree in Art History, with a focus on Modernism and gender. Lucy has grown to love literature and acting in particular, and her experiences acting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival have been formative, convincing her that performance can be an essential tool for communication and connection, as well as of course being a valuable source of entertainment.
Lucy Morrison returns to Hampstead after The Animal Kingdom. An Associate Director at the Royal Court, her credits include This Is Not Who I Am, Scenes with girls and The Woods (Royal Court) and Little on the Inside (Almeida).