Merit (Finborough Theatre)

Tom Littler directs Alexandra Wood’s two-hander at the Finborough

Karen Ascoe (Patricia) and Ellie Turner (Sofia)
Karen Ascoe (Patricia) and Ellie Turner (Sofia)
© Robert Workman

Has feisty daughter Sofia (Ellie Turner) got her high-powered job as PA to a high-achieving, high-earning Spanish banker on merit, or has she offered him something improper in return to make her stand out from the crowd? Her mother Patricia (Karen Ascoe) implies as much, and Sofia's lack of a denial behind her outrage sets up a mother/daughter duel that really goes the distance.

Each of the ten scenes in this 75-minute two-hander takes a different direction and offers a new twist on their relationship, and indeed on their relationship with the unseen husband and father, who loses his job, threatens suicide, recovers, gets a new job and seems to need both the women in his life, mother and daughter, around him to establish his own identity.

Banker Antonio apparently uses his millions to 'help people', and has clearly cast a spell over Sofia, whilst Sofia's dad manipulates both of them for his own ends in a much more mundane fashion. The two women reveal the story in sharp exchanges, and twists and turns in the balance of power, whilst straining the boundaries of natural affection.

What keeps this relatively small domestic battle afloat is the revelation of Patricia as go-getting, duplicitous and ultimately criminal. Or is she? Sofia doesn't buy it, but Patricia swears it's true. Is her desperation in getting a job when her husband is made redundant merely a mask for something much more sinister, revealing her to be an activist more active than her daughter could ever have been, or is it a demonstration for Sofia's benefit that there could be much more to her mother than meets the scornful eye of youth?

It's intriguing stuff, and very plausibly and skilfully delivered by both performers, but somehow, for all its dramatic verve, it doesn't get beyond third gear. There are some very telling touches, such as the fact the father's suicide attempt is counterpointed with another death that is possibly made to look like a suicide, and there is no doubting the skill of the writer, Alexandra Wood, in getting to grips with a range of moral questions thrown up by today's them-and-us society, but it ends at the point where you want the real drama to unfold. Who is telling the truth? Will the family hold together now, if the mother is being dreadfully honest with her daughter for the first time? And what on earth would the poor unseen men make of it all, if they were able to do so? It cries out for a good old-fashioned denouement, given its thriller-ish tone, but instead we have to content ourselves with a diverting cat-and-mouse game that never quite reveals who is the cat and who is the mouse.

Taut direction from Tom Littler ensures a lively pace throughout, but as the audience trooped out there was rather less of a theatrical buzz in the air than has often been the case at this address.

Merit runs at the Finborough Theatre until 26 March.