Preview: Middle England

Owen Jones’ Chavs explores the differences between the disappearance of middle class Madeleine McCann, and the kidnapping of Shannon Matthews by her working class mother Karen Matthews. The stark differences between Daily Mail headlines, between public levels of suspicion and sympathy, make for an uncomfortable read: it is precisely this discomfort that Carla Kingham hopes to translate to the stage in her new play Middle England.

Paul (Francis Thomas) is a paediatrician whose stay-at-home wife Mai (Claire Bowman) finds herself caught in the middle of a media storm after their six-year-old daughter Jessica is taken. The two live comfortably in what we assume is a London townhouse. Charlie (Phoebe Hames) is a working class mother who lives on an estate just round the corner from Mai, and whose daughter Grace was taken at the same time. Charlie and her wife Dan (Ed Price) assume working class accents which come less naturally than Thomas and Bowman’s cut-glass intonation. However, this became less obvious as the preview went on, and this trend will certainly continue through rehearsals.  

I was shown three short sections at a preview last Saturday. The first section opens with both couples speaking in stereo as they each discover their child has disappeared. The actions takes place within the audience’s seating area: there is no stage to speak of and so the audience is very, very close to the action. Technically, four people conducting two conversations at the same time is difficult to implement, and still needs a little tightening up. However, the scene I saw with just the two mothers speaking was moving and confidently executed.

There are a few cast members who sit in the audience’s chairs and offer a sympathetic ear or a cynical laugh to the parents every now and then. This is especially intriguing when the couples are separated to give their individual statements to the police: each parent does this simultaneously but without their interlocutors saying a word.

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The effect is creepy: each parent describes what his or her daughter was wearing, why they turned their back for ‘just a moment’, who the last person to see her was; the audience watch on with critical faculties engaged, waiting for them to slip up. The cast member they are speaking to stares back. Kingham says that these cast members represent the community and the media: unlike real-life missing child cases, they remain silent and we must guess the claustrophobic effect they will come to have on the parents.

The audience is torn between sympathy and suspicion, and the hemmed-in atmosphere of the BT will make it impossible to do exactly what we would like to do once we’ve made up our mind about a couple on a TV appeal: switch it off and go about our lives. Middle England examines our prejudices at close quarters and the confrontational nature of drama means that for the audience, as for the parents, there is no escape.