Hit me baby one more time

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2097

So I was just…’ The pause stretches away into eternity. ‘…standing there.’ She sits and stares into space. ‘And they were calling me things…like…like…you murderer, you murdering bitch…we’re gonna kill you, you murdering bitch.’

This is Louisa Holloway, and she is electrifying. You’ve no idea who she is or what she’s done – yet – but she’s electrifying. And so this play goes. Character after character comes onto the stage without warning and without explanation, exposes the bare flesh of their conscience, and leaves.

First comes Holloway’s character Donna, vacant and harrowing. She is in prison, you work out gradually, convicted of the murder of her young son and daughter. An ordinary mother, trapped in an insane Dantean panopticon of cameras and judging eyes, clinging desperately to her innocence.

Then we meet Lynn, the carefully enunciating local politician, played with a note of girlishness by Vanessa Carr. Lynn was a Labour loyalist, but split from the party over a matter of conscience, and is running as an independent. She has suffered some unspecified tragedy. Eventually, you realise she is Donna’s mother.

Next a tweed-jacketed flappy-tied academic bounds onto the stage. Charles MacRae’s Dr Millard, in all his flamboyant brilliance, pontificates about the human brain. About its perfect biological aptitude for lying. We are conditioned by lies. ‘The only reason you have all that brainpower,’ he drawls, ‘is to work out what the other fucker is thinking.’

Slowly – painfully slowly – you piece the plot and the ideas of Taking Care of Baby together. Its complex apparatus of family and the media and tragedies personal and public all hinges on a single question: did Donna kill her children? The play becomes a raging cyclone of untruth and hypocrisy, with the young mother at its centre.

Chloe Orrock and Liz Gilbert’s direction brings out the instability of truth beautifully. Two of the actors play dual characters of totally opposed temperaments: Andrew McCormack basically gets to play himself as Jim, Lynn’s expansive husband, and then is utterly transformed into a sweet-talking Machiavellian bastard of a Tory politician. Meanwhile Alex Sheppard is utterly brilliant as Donna’s anguished husband and then just as good as his nemesis, the laddish and caddish journalist trying to sell the story. ‘Don’t make me out to be a total cunt,’ he says as he leaves the stage.

This is Burton Taylor drama at its best. There is humour here, as well as brutal tragedy and the ever-present questions: how honest is anybody? What the hell is going on here? What is integrity? What is hypocrisy? Are you complicit? And, finally, did she do it? You decide.

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