In his first play at the Bush, 2,000 Feet Away, Australian actor/writer Anthony Weigh closed in quirkily on small minds, gluttony, puritanism and paedophilia in small-town America and served notice of a talent to amuse and bemuse in equal measure.
His new play, Like a Fishbone, directed like the first by Bush artistic director Josie Rourke, is almost abstract in comparison, pitting an unnamed architect (Deborah Findlay) against a blind, bereaved mother (Sarah Smart) of a child caught up in a school massacre. It’s also a debate about how accurately an artist should interpret the demands of a commission.
There’s a balancing, intermediary presence of the architect’s intern (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), but the main theme of a taut, tense 80 minutes is the idea that a memorial to the children should either conserve the school, like jam, as it was on that fateful day; or be obliterated as a mark of respect, which is what the supplicant, slightly fanatical mother prefers.
From there the dialogue proceeds to a discussion about faith. The school was a church school, and the mother recounts, in a chilling speech, how the choir of children could be heard above the gunshots; until there were only gunshots. What does the architect believe in? Herself. Where is her son? With his father. Has she lost her child, too?
You enter, like an intruder, through a brand new door into the architect’s office, a large model of the small town and proposed memorial – there’s a presentation due later on – dead centre. The windows are streaming with rain, the ceiling is low, with a large skylight, the seats ranged on newly carpentered structures: this is another remarkable, expensive-looking design makeover by Lucy Osborne.
The blandness is deliberate, but it’s also contagious. Despite the spiky turning points in the argument (“This is not art; it’s a warning against religion”), Rourke’s production is a little contrived, almost too poetic and metaphorical for its own good, despite riveting performances from Findlay as the silkily self-confident and serpentine architect, and Smart as a bug-eyed, drenched mother from another planet, it seems.