The Session (Soho Theatre)

Debbie Hannan directs Andrew Muir’s new play about how couples communicate

Tom Shepherd and Izabella Urbanowicz in The Session
Tom Shepherd and Izabella Urbanowicz in The Session

"My wife is foreign," Robert tells his marriage counsellor. His wife Lena thinks of herself as Polish. She defines herself by what she is, not what she is not. "In my land," she tells the audience, "you would be a human alien."

Andrew Muir‘s two-hander looks at the language of love. Lena arrived in this country with no English. Her husband never learned Polish. Living in England, he never felt the need. You might think that fair, but that language barrier drives a wedge between them. "In Polish," Lena says, "I am myself." English makes her feel foolish: a second tongue for a second self.

That’s no foundation for a marriage. Their relationship started out wordlessly, reliant on mime and mutual attraction, but equal. They read together in their own mother tongues and listened to separate audio tours on gallery trips. As words set in, however, the relationship tilts in Robbie’s favour. Their son, being bilingual, tips the balance back, and soon its Robbie that feels locked out. "Poland took over."

This is, it seems, a regular issue in relationships. The Session is exec-produced by Mothertongue, a multi-ethnic counselling service that deals with such issues. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem. Muir’s play exists to illustrate that. It does so eloquently, but the brief holds it back. It approaches the same subject from every which angle, and Robert and Lena’s entire relationship seems constructed to demonstrate the inequalities of immigration.

Those stand, simultaneously, for the inequalities of gender and it’s little surprise to see Robbie calling the shots in their relationship, deciding holiday destinations and determining family traditions. Lena is the more brilliant – she came here to study piano professionally and bumped into Robbie behind a bar. Fifteen years on, he’s a middling teacher in a failing comprehensive, hoping that, one day, someone will publish his book. Do men love with their eyes and women with their ears?

Muir diagnoses a kind of extant colonial attitude embedded in English arrogance. For all this country’s embrace of multiculturalism, it takes place on English terms. Lena’s image of Englishmen was of picturebook princes. Robbie looks down on the world – convinced he can get by on stutter French and old-fashioned British charm. In the end, the language barrier breaks them down: they haven’t the words to deal with the biggest problems in life – death.

Debbie Hannan‘s production, played against an ocean blue backdrop that suggests neutral waters, can’t summon the groundswell of grief either. Its young cast – too young for their parts – tend towards lightness, but neither Tom Shepherd or Izabella Urbanowicz has that black hole at the centre of their being that comes with the loss of a child. That’s partly because Muir’s script pulls towards rom-com, occasionally going all out ‘just-a-boy-standing-in-front-of-a-girl’ gooey. It doesn’t take much to tip into contrivance and a couple of tiny details snag: no landlord closes a pub for an England world cup game, no company rents a 13-year-old a moped.

The Session runs at Soho Theatre until 28th November.