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Einstein's Daughter (Greater Manchester Fringe Festival)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Venue: Lass O'Gowrie
Where: Manchester

Playwrights may occasionally resort to unnecessary swearing or violence to provoke a shocked response from their audience. On the other hand, productions like  Rob Johnston's Einstein's Daughter build subtly towards devastating truths that are genuinely disturbing.

Maggie (Emma Parker) is autistic. She struggles to form connections with people and her photographic memory makes it impossible to forget the cruel nickname she was given at school. She is a perfect uncritical, even adoring, audience for her egoistical obsessive/compulsive father Andrew (Hugo Chandor who also directs). The unexpected re-appearance of Maggie's only school friend Cath (Amy Spencer) threatens their relationship and shows that Andrew's needs might be darker than first imagined.

Johnston's excellent play develops gradually. Maggie and Cath explore the defences they have used to prevent others from becoming too close. Maggie has been indoctrinated by her father to regard the past as a sealed room and Cath has constructed a gobby off-putting persona. But both are desperate to make some kind of contact. Subtly, the play becomes an insightful and very powerful study of exploitation. Horrifyingly this is not a reciprocal arrangement (as in dominance /submission) but is entirely one-sided with one party callously using the other.

Chandor directs with understanding allowing the mood to darken in a natural manner. The audience is kept off-balance throughout as Chandor shifts the focus of the play between the characters making it hard to predict where developments will occur. In this way he brings a touch of thriller to the play; timing the revelations so that they surprise and shock.

Chandor's performance is even better than his direction. His interpretation of Andrew is excellent never descending into the big bad villain but instead drawing out the nasty little behavioural touches that reveal a sociopath. It is a skin-crawling performance that makes you feel slightly soiled, just watching.

Parker is heartbreaking as Maggie showing someone who, behind robotic movements and a blank stare, is straining at the limits of her emotional capacity. Spencer carries the humanity of the play with an increasingly powerful performance. Bizarrely, as the character who would be perceived by society as a misfit, she is the only really moral person in the play.

Einstein's Daughter is a rarity, in that it's a play that does not compromise. It contains at least one scene that you just cannot forget. But then the whole play is memorable and completely unmissable.

- Dave Cunningham


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