I love walking up the steep flights of stairs to the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs because you never know quite what will greet you when you reach the top. You don’t know how the space will be shaped – or what kind of drama will unfold in front of your eyes.
In the case of EV Crowe’s The Sewing Group, it’s a very weird experience indeed. The theatre is configured with a bank of seats facing a small acting area, entirely enclosed in planks of untreated wood. For the first ten minutes, Crowe plays an interesting theatrical variation on the theme of watching paint dry – showing short scenes in which women stitch and spout gnomic and disconcerting utterances like "The winter cometh. It cometh." Sometimes they just sew. Or hum. And then there is a blackout, marked by harpsichord music.
We are in the pre-Industrial age, and a young woman is joining a sewing group formed of two women crouched working their needles by candlelight. Gradually her status changes; from being an outsider, she begins to control the group, recruiting new members, altering the colour and the pattern. It seems that we are watching a morality tale about the way industrialisation corrupts the idyll, bringing in suspicion, pressure and the desire for personal gain.
But there are disconcerting hints that all is not quite what it seems. The music (sound by Christopher Shutt) takes on rumbling electronic tones; a woman enters saying "I don’t remember this bit"; there’s a whispered conversation about a flat up the road and one about an "agreed arc" of experience.
Gradually it becomes clear that Crowe is interested not in the past, but in the data-driven present, where lives are dominated and distorted by work, paranoia, and a loss of the ability to value the simple life. To say more gives away too much of her carefully-wrought plotting, which springs its surprises with considerable wit and skill.
The only disappointment is that if the first half is enigmatic, the second – after the play’s big reveal – is too didactic, spelling out its message with increasing shrillness. But it’s never less than intriguing and the ideas under debate are important. Stewart Laing directs with careful attention to the play’s changing tones. And the entire cast – most especially Fiona Glascott as the intruder Maggie – play their parts with subtle conviction.
Ruth de Courcy, the sewing consultant listed in the programme, has done her work well.
The Sewing Group runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 December.