Here at Southwark Playhouse review: an engaging, spooky affair in which the young actors shine bright

Hannah Millward, left, and Lucy Benjamin in Here  (The Other Richard)
Hannah Millward, left, and Lucy Benjamin in Here (The Other Richard)

A finely observed West Midlands family drama with mild supernatural overtones, Clive Judd’s debut play won Papatango’s 2022 playwriting award. It’s given a sensitive production here by the company’s director George Turvey, in which the two young actors in the four-strong cast shine particularly brightly.

It’s not perfect: Birmingham-based Judd, a theatre director himself as well as a bookseller and prose writer, has a better command of character and mood than plot. The slow smoulder of suggestion about the secrets and unhappiness that beset the family doesn’t end with a satisfying enough bang. Even the cast seemed uncertain whether the play had finished last night. But Papatango has once again identified a talent worth watching.

It begins when 25-year-old Matt goes to visit his younger cousin Jess, who lives in their grandfather’s small, old-fashioned house somewhere between Kidderminster and Worcester with her mother and stepfather. Though Matt is mild and easygoing there’s a suggestion that he is “wired wrong” like his mother Mary is said to be, and has been sleeping rough. Jess, we learn, is a university dropout still having an affair with her female professor.

Jess’s mother Monica – Mary’s sister – is overly fond of white wine. Stepdad Jeff was orphaned in a car crash and later overcame a gambling addiction by turning to a local church. There’s a suggestion that the grandad’s death two years before was unusual, or unresolved. Matt, who creates ambient compositions, hopes to capture his spirit on tape. Neither he nor Jess seem to know anything about their biological fathers.

Sam Baker-Jones in Here (The Other Richard)
Sam Baker-Jones in Here (The Other Richard)

After a false start where the wackiness of Monica and Jeff is too coarsely underlined – they always eat Chicken Kiev; he paints model soldiers – the writing and the acting settles into a beautiful pattern of slow revelation. The scenes between Sam Baker-Jones, making his stage debut as Matt, and the only slightly more experienced Hannah Millward as Jess, are particularly delicate. He has tremendous ease on stage and she is magnificently contained. Both have the knack of communicating more by doing less.

Lucy Benjamin and Mark Frost also give fine performances as Monica and Jeff, but the show belongs to the young. Turvey plays to the script’s strengths but can’t quite disguise its weaknesses. Sound designer and composer Asaf Zohar generates some goosebump-raising moments but Jasmine Swan’s set design is counter-productive.

We observe the action in the kitchen/dining room of the house through gauze walls, effectively peering into a semi-transparent box. This allows for a couple of revelations conceived through lighting effects, and works as a metaphor for the characters’ indistinct understanding of each other. But it’s also distancing and annoying: I wanted to see these subtle performances more clearly.

Here isn’t a great play but it’s a great start: an engaging, empathetic, slightly spooky affair that definitely arrests the attention.

At Southwark Playhouse, to December 3;