The Distance (Orange Tree)

Helen Baxendale returns to the London stage in Deborah Bruce’s ‘urgent’ meditation on motherhood

'Delicately nuanced and troubled' - Helen Baxendale as Bea
'Delicately nuanced and troubled' – Helen Baxendale as Bea
© Helen Warner

With this first major fringe production of an urgent new play about modern maternity and female friendship, Deborah Bruce seriously enters the lists as a name to watch. The Distance picks up the echo from Nora in A Doll's House banging the door on her husband and two children.

Unlike Nora, though, Bruce's Bea – in a delicately nuanced and troubled performance by Helen Baxendale – is not so much hankering for a fuller independent life as declaring herself unsuitable for motherhood. The boys back home in Melbourne are better off with their father. And who'd not prefer the Oz open spaces to a flat in Finsbury Park?

What I like about the play is its honesty in not claiming any kind of moral high ground for Bea. She enjoys her own life, her own friends, her own drinking, and she misses the freedom of spontaneous social combustion. It's a dilemma familiar to any young couple moving into family life. Most of us make the adjustments.

But Bruce then whacks in the counter-argument of flawed, inadequate parenthood. Bea's friends, Kate (an intense, controlling Clare Lawrence-Moody) and Alex (a borderline hysteric from Emma Beattie), who both assume she's about to fight a custody battle, are revealed with relish as "bad mother" examples.

Kate has a teenage daughter from another relationship and Alex, whose three children are by three different men, is panicking unhelpfully as 15 year-old Liam (a pitch-perfect performance by Bill Milner, who was in the recent Another Country revival) is caught up in the Tottenham riots, kicking off big-time over this weekend.

There's chaos on the street, and carnage on the carpet in this safe haven somewhere near Brighton. Charlotte Gwinner's astute production gets the balance just right between realism and metaphor, though a few home truths towards the end ("Not having a mother is better than having a mother who gets it wrong every time") stick out sore-thumbishly.

Bruce's points are best made in character and revelation, not least in the well-drawn pair of Welsh brothers (an impulsive Oliver Ryan as a sympathetic spoilsport, and quietly solid Daniel Hawksford as catty Kate's marital punch bag).

The body of the play is bookended with Bea meeting her Australian partner Simon (Timothy Knightley). The "pick-up" on a Kuala Lumpur hotel stopover to Melbourne is a lovely opening encounter, indicating Bea's nervousness and non-committal personality; and Signe Beckmann's clever design prompts two classic bits of Orange Tree scene-changing.