Isn’t it terrible when the only adjective you can think of is ‘lovely’? ‘Nice’ seems such faint praise as to be damning, so you go with ‘lovely’ and find yourself stuck. But, meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, ‘lovely’ is what you’re hoping for and probably the best you’ll get. Unfortunately ‘lovely’ is not what Evan is dealing with when he encounters his girlfriend Claire’s parents, despite his inability to think of any other words. He certainly isn’t dealing with ‘nice’.
The premise of The Courting of Claire is so simple, yet it still manages to surprise at every turn, transforming all the awkward tension expressed in Evan’s first parental encounter into something very much more sinister. There are expertly crafted moments of relief and humour throughout, offering escape as Evan’s position deteriorates in the face of a mother’s love and obsession for her daughter, a primal intention not to be replaced. It is this ability to be both nurturing and destructive which gives Mary Flanigan’s portrayal of ‘Mum’ – as her character is called – a presence equivalent to a force of nature. She can delicately spread toast and then ruthlessly forcefeed the ‘Boy’ water. The household is ruled by a psychotic matriarch and all male presences have faded into the realm of the memory and supernatural – where is Claire’s father and what happened to ‘The Previous One’, the boyfriend who they aren’t ‘allowed’ to talk about?
This all begs the question: is student playwright Matt Fuller that frightened of women? He explicitly denies that the play is based on true events and wants us to know that his own girlfriend’s parents are ‘lovely’. It came from his desire to write something very different after his New Writing Festival success Lemonworld. The third offering he is now working on will presumably be just as different again.
Is this a ‘gritty kitchen-sink drama’, a comedy of manners, a rom-com, a horror? Somewhere in between them all is probably the correct answer, showing that once again Matt finds himself unconfined by a single genre. He states that Evan is the ‘everyman’ caught up in events beyond his control. Well, I certainly hope that he isn’t every man. I hope that no man endures what he does. The climactic scene features a visceral speech by ‘Mum’ which elicits pure terror. Both writer and director (Michaela Scotting) have collaborated throughout the rehearsal process to produce something chilling. And they both seemed so ‘nice’!
Forget Meet the Parents, this is so much more excruciating. The logical extension of all those mother-in-law jokes, The Courting of Claire presents true demonisation.