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A CurtainUp London London Review
Shallow Slumber

If I tell the truth you either don’t believe me or you don’t like it. If I lie, well, it’s exactly the same. I can never win. — Dawn
Shallow Slumber
Alexandra Gilbreath as Moira and Amy Cudden as Dawn (Photo: Camilla Greenwell)
Shallow Slumber, a new play by writer and social worker, Chris Lee, is the haunting encounter between social worker Moira (Alexandra Gilbreath) and her former client Dawn (Amy Cudden). Played in the unbearably hot Soho Theatre Upstairs on a traverse stage, this production comes from the Supporting Wall Theatre Company (theiroutstanding production of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm at the Southwark Playhouse has been praised and nominated for awards and is returning to the Playhouse after a UK tour in June 2012).

In the opening act, Moira is no longer a social worker. Her career has been destroyed by a choice she made. Dawn has just served a term in prison. Slowly the dreadful truth and gut wrenching guilt reveal an event that will hold both women back for a lifetime.

The play takes place in three acts backwards across time, and starting in the present on Dawn’s release from prison, going back to Act Two where Moira visits Dawn on remand in prison and finally to Act Three where, as a social worker, Moira is visiting Dawn and her baby at their home on the estate.

Alexander Gilbreath is the social worker, almost resigned to the mistake she made . She's not openly resentful or angry, but depressed — accepting that people have a choice and that some are affected by their upbringing. In the first scene she tells Dawn, “You have ruined my life.” Later Dawn counters with several different versions of her own parenting. One or two of these versions are very cruel or violent and almost certainly said for effect.

Dawn is bright and manipulates Moira, seeking to illustrate how information about Dawn’s background will influence Moira’s perception of Dawn’s motives and behaviour. If what Moira was trying to reach is the truth, this is what we hear in full at the close of the play. This may be the only time that Dawn has told anybody what happened, as in prison, women abusing children will usually lie about what they are in prison for. Dawn is played by Amy Cudde, her fresh faced appearance belying her psychological history, her terribly low self steem and her past.

Both performances are powerful and understated in a good way and author Chris Lee does not attempt neat explanations for infanticide. Mary Nighy directs with great skill, allowing the disturbing performances to seep into your own psyche with unanswered and unanswerable questions. The traverse playing area means that you will often have one actor turned away from you or in profile making it difficult to read what is behind what they are saying.

Based on the Baby P affair where injuries to a child were concealed from a well meaning but perhaps gullible social worker, Shallow Slumber looks at the terrible responsibility we place on overworked individuals from the caring profession and the press witch hunt and judicial enquiries which follow any mistake. We see Moira as a new social worker full of idealism and later think back to how she is disillusioned. Of course if there were simple explanations then we should be able to predict more accurately but human behaviour is not simple and often not predictable, so why do we expect more?

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Shallow Slumber
Written by Chris Lee
Directed by Mary Nighy

Starring: Alexandra Gilbreath and Amy Cudden
Designed by Georgia Lowe
Lighting: Christopher Nairne
Sound: Ed Borgnis
Running time: One hour 25 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 080 7478 0100
Booking to 18th February 2012
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th January 2012 performance at The Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE (Tube: Tottenham Court Road)

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