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The Edge of Our Bodies (Gate Theatre)

Shannon Tarbet excels in Adam Rapp's play at the Gate Theatre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Shannon Tarbet as Bernadette
© Iona Firouzabadi

There's something oddly haunting about The Edge of Our Bodies, the opening show in the Gate's 35th anniversary season. Adam Rapp's strange little play sways by stealth, at first appearing coolly distanced before imperceptibly closing its icy grip. At some point, with minimum fuss, it becomes quietly compelling.

The play itself is relatively flimsy, teeming with surface detail but lacking real substance beneath it. The central plot revolves around Bernadette (Shannon Tarbet on mesmerising form), a 16-year-old girl playing truant from boarding school. She is on her way to New York to tell her boyfriend that she is pregnant, but once there she instead finds herself encountering his cancer suffering father, before a detour to a bar ends with an ill-advised liaison.

Christopher Haydon's production slowly peels back the ambiguous layers of truth and fiction that could be lost in a lesser interpretation. Tarbet recites Bernadette's story from what is presumably a diary, though the structure of the play leaves it unclear where the boundaries of performance lie. This narrative is spliced together with snippets of Genet's The Maids, the play for which Bernadette is auditioning at school, and which is itself deeply interested in role play. To complicate matters further, it is from within the set of this other play that Bernadette's experiences are delivered, surrounded by Lily Arnold's mirror-studded design. Is this really Bernadette we are seeing, or is it just another fictional construct being reflected from every angle?

Haydon's is also a production that expands as it goes on, beginning small and self-contained before later exploding into life. It's a risky strategy and one that demands patience and concentration in its quiet, unhurried opening minutes. But once discarding the notebook from which she initially reads, Tarbet is a ceaselessly captivating presence, teasing one moment and wild-eyed and vulnerable the next. She completely inhabits that precarious teenage in-betweenness, poised between troubled girl and self-assured woman. And even when her eyes are glassy with tears, there is a relish in the performance which hints again at the film of fiction coating Bernadette's tale.

Strangely gripping as it is, however, the play itself struggles to match the power of Tarbet's performance. While Rapp's language has all the richness and detail of the best short stories – faces are like lunch meat and cologne is so strong it coats the tongue – it adorns a piece that never quite achieves the significance it reaches for. It might linger in the memory, but with uncertain effect.

The Edge of Our Bodies runs at the Gate Theatre until 18 October