by Phoebe Eclair-Powell
Directed by Atri Banerjee
Bush Theatre – until 26 June
I’m not sure what they’re putting in the water in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland, but it appears to have enabled the Gough family to produce not one but two extraordinary actresses. Denise Gough understandably became a critics darling and multiple award winner for her intense, enthralling work as a drug addict teetering on the brink of oblivion in the National Theatre smash hit People, Places And Things. If Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s punchy, gripping monologue Harm doesn’t quite end up having the same effect on Kelly Gough’s career that’s only because this is a less seismic and grandiose piece than Duncan Macmillan’s fierce, big-mouthed extravaganza, and not because Ms Gough Jr is any less exciting a talent than her older sister.
She holds the stage – otherwise populated only by an enormous stuffed toy which gets mounted, pounded and eviscerated during the course of the performance – for a riveting, often hilarious 70 minutes, not so much playing as embodying an unnamed London estate agent who develops an unhealthy online obsession with a social media influencer who she has been trying to sell a house to. The pitfalls of fake celebrity, and the massive gulf between ones online presence and real life, might feel like shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to creating a piece of contemporary drama, but Eclair-Powell’s ingenuity as a story teller coupled with Gough’s astonishing ability to come across as sinister, sympathetic and wildly, bitterly, funny, often all at the same time, make this into something unusual and compulsive.
Atri Banerjee’s focussed direction serves the two women’s work exceptionally well, providing a pared back, vaguely unsettling environment – enhanced by Lee Curran’s sulphuric lighting and a compellingly doom-laden sound score by Jasmin Kent Rodgman – for Gough to masterfully chart the principal character’s downward trajectory from cock-sure bantering to hollow-eyed desperation. Gough also sketches in a variety of other characters, including her quarry’s dismissive Aussie boyfriend and a fairly ghastly yoga-advocating influencer, with wit, economy and accuracy.
When we first encounter Woman, as she’s referred to in the playtext, she’s vivacious albeit with a slightly manic edge but over the course of the next hour or so, Gough devastatingly lays bare all the character’s loneliness, neediness and disconnectedness, yet crucially never quite loses our affection. Her body language is fascinating: at once languid and wired, like a physical manifestation of profound unhappiness, it’s a genuine tour de force. Even if the central performance is more remarkable than the play that houses it, it’ll still be essential to see what both Phoebe Eclair-Powell and Kelly Gough do next. Recommended.