It is perhaps ironic that a play which seemingly revolves around a child who is accidentally swapped at birth is named after that child’s mother, but it’s clear that it is Hanna’s story that ultimately forms the centre of Off West End Award nominee Sam Potter’s portrayal of the unconventional family. Having expected a melée of familial chaos, the starkly lit stage – just a table and single chair at its centre – is both striking and far from the conventional image of bustling family life. Sophie Khan Levy’s almost casual entrance as Hanna, and effortless launch into the 70 minute monologue that makes up the play’s entirety is believably candid, with the accessibility of Potter’s writing creating a strong sense of intimacy.
Hanna’s story is at first almost too good to be true: despite unexpectedly falling pregnant and initial familial opposition, Hanna perseveres with her pregnancy, motherhood quickly becoming ‘the only thing [she] was ever any good at’, alongside the support of her boyfriend, Pete. However, it is not until much later, with a DNA test revealing a hospital mistake following the jaundice treatment given to newborn daughter Ellie, that Hanna realises that the child she has attentively raised for the past 3 years is not biologically hers.
What follows is a narrative that remains utterly honest, a far cry from Wildean tales of babies left in handbags and found in train stations, with Potter’s self professed ‘character driven’ play matching Hanna’s growing confusion with an enduring sense of humour, prolonging the audience’s familiarity with her, and retaining an integral notion of humanity.
From Hanna’s dilemma, Potter creates an opportunity to explore various issues, most notably relating to class, race, and the family, which become more prevalent as Hanna establishes contact with her biological daughter, and the woman who has raised her. Hanna’s naive disbelief at the financial disparity between the two families; ‘I had no idea people had so much more than we had’, and the use of both class and racial stereotypes – which are at times uncomfortable – serve to highlight a seemingly insurmountable cultural and circumstantial divide between both mothers and their respective birth children.
Such contrasts are reminiscent of the ambiguous relationship between nature and nurture, and the role in which family plays in an individual’s identity. Certainly, Potter’s depiction of Hanna’s growing panic as she realises the integrity of her family is challenged; ‘if someone else is Ellie’s mother then who the f*** am I?’, and Levy’s portrayal of her character’s constant search for certainty, restless in her chair, becomes both captivating and illustrative of the significance of familial relationships. Further confounding Hanna’s situation is the lack of terminology surrounding it: ‘the only words are to do with adoption, but that’s not what happened to us’, with the failure of language to articulate or bring sense to her dilemma, working only to mark it as overtly ‘other’, and through constant allusion to Hanna’s inherent guilt; ‘in many ways [her daughter] was quite lucky to be taken away from me’, her growing isolation is realised. Potter, however, never allows pessimism to take over the narrative, Hanna’s investment in the relationship between the two daughters, and Levy’s ability to easily coax laughter from the audience lifts the piece, keeping Hanna’s perhaps naive wonder at the fore.
Towards the play’s culmination, Hanna’s more conversational presentation of her story subsides almost into a stream of consciousness, as any lights in the audience gradually fade out. With Hanna’s voice remaining the sole point of focus, viewers continue to be drawn in as the character leads towards a conclusion. Unfortunately, due to Levy’s fast-paced speech throughout the play’s entirety, any increase in tempo to convey her character’s panic is somewhat lost, despite the occasional pause.
Whilst Potter creates an affecting portrayal of the bittersweet job of raising a child, made all the more difficult by an unconventional familial situation, her assertion that she wanted to ‘focus on the story of the mother’ is perhaps too apparent. Hanna’s frequent digressions may make her more tangible – and, by extension, a more sympathetic character – but they also work to confound the narrative. ‘Hanna’ is perhaps slow to start, with a prolonged premise culminating in a hurried ending that feels, ultimately, formulaic. However, it is not the pacing, but Hanna’s optimism that makes this piece, as she asserts with new confidence that ‘families are not fixed’, and Potter leaves the audience with an affirming conclusion which fits neatly back with the beginning.
Hanna is on tour with Papatango Theatre Company from the 3rd of January to the 22nd of February 2018.