It's interesting to note that Eugene O'Hare's debut play is billed as a black comedy-drama on the back of the published script whereas the Park Theatre's website calls it simply a drama. Not wishing to split hairs but I definitely think dropping the former description was a wise move. Good as actor-turned-writer O'Hare's piece is (and it's very good indeed), anybody who heads up to Finsbury Park for a night of theatrical mirth, however dark, will find themselves feeling short-changed, if not downright upset, after the very first scene.
Set in a grubby, soulless East End flat, the play begins with a pair of down-at-heel, mismatched room mates – sozzled, laid back Beezer and ludicrously uptight O'Rourke (Mark Hadfield and Alec Newman respectively, both terrific) squabbling over a dodgy-sounding business transaction one of them has made with their landlord. There are shades of Orton, Pinter, even Beckett in their ratty, slightly absurd exchanges. ("I'm trying on my Christmas clothes." "But we're…we're the 14th of October, you dodo." "It creeps up on you when you least expect it you see – Christmas; the bastard.")
Amiably edgy as all this is, it's merely lulling the audience into a false sense of security. The temperature on stage and in the auditorium palpably drops when we, and Beezer, realise exactly what O'Rourke has agreed to: in exchange for free rent and a weekly allowance, they'll house a 12 year old Romanian girl their landlord has somehow acquired.
So…this is a play about human trafficking, and it is poignant, shocking and plain nasty in equal measure as it explores abuse in a variety of forms: of children, of trust, of alcohol, of basic humanity. It also heralds the arrival, in O'Hare, of a fearless new playwright with a singular voice, an ability to look unflinchingly at the lower echelons of human behaviour, and a willingness to find some explanation, but not forgiveness, for the darkness that exists within many people. The second half occasionally threatens to tip over into cheap sensationalism but is repeatedly pulled back from the brink by Alice Hamilton's finely calibrated direction and a quintet of flawless performances.
Niamh James makes a remarkable (and entirely wordless) debut as Mara, the Romanian child thrust into a horrific situation she has little understanding of, and even less control over. She unsparingly conveys the watchful, not-quite-broken spirit of a youngster who has already seen things no grown adult should ever have to countenance. David Schaal is authentically terrifying as her controller, a power-playing thug with a mother complex and an unexpected appreciation for poetry and fine art. This mix of sentimentality and viciousness is not especially original but Schaal skilfully makes him both the stuff of nightmares and horribly plausible. Cyril Nri is equally unsettling as his principal henchman, brutally in denial that his own daughter is the same age as waif-like Mara.
As her unwilling captors Hadfield and Newman are delivering possibly career-best work. Hadfield invests the endlessly wasted Beezer, whose uncanny ability to predict the weather gives the play its title, with a rumpled semi-dignity and a suggestion that here was once a funny, unique soul before the booze got to him. Newman is astonishing as his nervy, fragile flatmate, who slowly but surely comes to the realisation that his moral compass isn't so much compromised as smashed to pieces, and attempts to rectify the situation.
O'Hare writes with a kind of ferocious, foul-mouthed poeticism, heightened from, yet adjacent to, naturalistic speech that is compelling, gritty and occasionally surprisingly beautiful. Despite being as gripping as a thriller, this tense, haunting piece never loses sight of the fact that the situation it depicts is more than just fodder for a night of riveting drama, and it is encouraging to see pamphlets on all of the Park seats describing how to spot the signs of human trafficking and who you can report to.
Technically impressive as almost every aspect of this challenging, chilling play is, it's not an easy watch. Sadly though, in this day and age, it is an essential one.