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The Shoreditch Madonna

I am not a talking picture, I am fragment like yourself. I smell rank when I am terrified. Unctuous when aroused. The hair on my chest is the texture of iron filings. I have no memory of being hairless. And no desire to return to a dilapidated state… I have caressed sirens off the edge of ships while their sisters ate away my spine. ---- Devlin
When it is a well-known fact that it is incredibly difficult for playwrights to earn a living writing exclusively for the theatre, it becomes a more and more pressing question as to where the plays regarded as the classics of the turn of the twenty-first century will come from. The Soho Theatre's Writers' Attachment Programme is one such initiative addressing this problem. The latest work commissioned by them is by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose earlier play The Night Season won the Critics' Circle Most Promising Playwright Award. Shoreditch Madonna is proof that she is fulfilling her hotly-tipped potential.

Set in London's East End, the play follows three young artists who are in the process of producing a retrospective weekend centring around an impoverished has-been painter, the "last of the bohemians". A figure from his past re-emerges seeking and offering more than just a chance to reminisce. Meanwhile, a recently bereaved young woman asks one of the artists to pose as a substitute for her dead boyfriend in a comfort video. Their lives play out in a nexus of pain, love, loss and desire. Although apparently inhabiting a world unconstrained by normal social boundaries and conventions, they still cannot escape the inescapable in human life: death, suffering, and ultimately hope.

Lenkiewicz's writing is set in a very contemporary world, but explores eternal themes with religious overtones. Both serious and witty, she can combine naturalistic dialogue with profound sentiment, with all the knowledge of speakability which actors turned playwrights often have. Sean Mathias' direction is very well suited to the play, instilling extra vitality into the text without undermining its meaning. The design is simplistically stylish and modern: an asymmetrical triangle of a stage is split by a clouded dark blue screen, allowing differing textures of space. Well-observed details add a sense of realism juxtaposed with the modish minimalism, such as random junk crammed under a bed.

The cast are uniformly skilled, convincing and well-directed. Particularly notable is Leigh Lawson as Devlin, the relic of a genius, the rest of whose circle are "either dead or in Wales". Unable to feel and therefore paint since the anaesthetising death of his young daughter, Lawson admirably captures the world-weary doggedness of man whose life is confined to the past. His strong, deeply-textured voice is the perfect vehicle for Devlin's articulate, garrulous insights. Martha (Francesca Annis) was once one of Devlin's students but is now the eponymous Shoreditch Madonna or a Venus de Milo "plus arms". Annis nicely brings out the fact that Martha's composure and capacity to heal those around her masks normal emotional turmoil. Lee Ingleby is especially engaging as Hodge, played with nervous energy and a certain innocence.

Although midway through this play, the plot seems slightly meandering and aimless, the threads are pulled together into a satisfying conclusion. The clever, fine details of the production coalesce into an overall coherence with a strong sense of the fragility of human life in the midst of alcohol and drug fuelled interactions. The premiere of this play has set a high standard for future productions, of which there will sure to be many: with stunning aesthetics and sound, superior direction and a definitively talented cast.

Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Sean Mathias

Starring: Leigh Lawson, Francesca Annis
With: Adam Croasdell, Lee Ingleby, Alexandra Moen, Daniel Rabin
Designer: Paul Burgess
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Running time: Two hours twenty-five minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7478 0136
Booking to 6th August
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 14th July performance at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE (Tube: Tottenham Court Road)
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