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Exile (Southwark Playhouse)

Exile (Southwark Playhouse, seen on July 6th)

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A chance overlapping of lives proves to have a lasting impact on two otherwise unconnected people in Exile, produced as part of the exciting two-week SWK Fest at Southwark Playhouse, offering a different production every night.

On stage the two don’t actually meet as the 55-minute play consists of two monologues, yet the way in which two worlds collide – or perhaps that should be embrace – makes for a richly-layered piece that resonates far beyond its central theme.

Niamh Denyer writes and stars as Donna, a young girl from Northern Ireland whose one-night stand leads to a life-changing decision in the days before the decriminalisation of abortion there.

But to assume this is what the play is all about seriously undermines the strength and complexity of a script which is always filled with wit and humour even as the lives of ordinary individuals is turned upside down.

Yes, this is a drama about spur of the moment decisions with heart-rending consequences and about feeling like an outsider in the everyday passage of life, but it manages also to be an authentic exploration of courage, self-understanding and personal discovery.

The journeys taken by both characters are summed up in a line early on in the play, “You try to stay present and then – boom! – you’re confronted by your past.”

Denyer’s Donna tells her story in the second half of the play and there are emotional moments when she feels like a lost soul as she suffers through her reluctance to tell her mother about her situation and as friends and the other man let her down for one reason or another. But she is instantly likeable, a gritty woman not raging against the system (and it would be so easy to go down this route given the plot strand) but genuinely trying to cope with the situation in which she finds herself in a way that never comes across as less than honest.

There are elements of this story and delivery that make it have more of a feel of a stand-up monologue, but you need to see both to get the full picture and this different emphasis in the way they come across adds weight to both.

The other character, Darren, is played with great warmth and energy by Sammy Johnson. He’s a happily married taxi driver, excited about the prospect of becoming a dad. Brought up in a macho culture not entirely in keeping with sexual experiences he is having at school he decides to do whatever it takes to fit in: “I didn’t want to be an outsider”

Where Donna’s chance encounter leads to her becoming pregnant, Darren’s reawakens a repressed sexuality. Both feel like outcasts from their home and what they have been brought up to believe and both actors invest tremendous spirit and intensity to their respective roles as they soul-search their way through the emotional torment.

The brief meeting – Darren takes Donna from the airport to the abortion clinic and, by coincidence, back again at the end of the day – is filled with hope. “She has been exiled from her home but she’s still standing,” says Darren of Donna, and it could be the mantra for all who face exile, not just in their personal odysseys but in any escape from repression to hopes of new freedom and futures.

Director Michael Kunze allows the stories to unfold naturally and without pressure to take sides in any argument, yet carefully steers us into empathy and understanding in spite of the characters feeling strong elements of shame in what they are doing.

And there’s some wonderfully subtle music and sound by Matthew Elson (described as soundscape and music supervisor) which is cleverly unobtrusive but would be missed if not present.

The moment of embrace (reported rather than seen) is crucial to help us understand the importance of being non-judgemental. It seems to say even more to a world that has been forced to refrain from touching for so many months: a simple hug having the power to comfort, support and help move on with renewed confidence.

There are certainly moments when you wish for slightly more development because of the good-natured glow of the personalities whose lives are being exposed. Yet you never feel short-changed and this is because everything you need to engage with the stories, the characters and the message is right there.

Exile is one of those plays that keeps you thinking about its many layers long beyond the end. Home may be where the heart is, but the power of compassion breaks through all boundaries and can bring hope when you least expect it.

There’s another chance to see this production at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre from November 16th – 20th 2021: https://app.lineupnow.com/event/exile

David Guest

Images: Kate Scott

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