The Knot of the Heart, Almeida Theatre, London

The protagonist of David Eldridge’s play is solidly middle-class: a promising children’s television presenter brought up in the comfortable Islington vicinity of the Almeida Theatre itself. Notwithstanding this mildly unusual twist, the topic is all but a dramatic cliché: heroin addiction. Eldridge, however, makes his family drama work by ignoring the cliché whenever he can; and when he cannot, investing it with insight and sensitivity.

In fact, my earlier statement is inaccurate. This is not the tale of Lucy’s descent into junkiedom and gradual recovery; it is about addictive behaviours that, if not altogether inherited, are at least more likely to appear in the children of addicted parents.

I did not notice the word “alcoholic” being used once in 140 minutes of playing time, but as early as the second scene we see that mother Barbara can deal with elder daughter Angela’s angry interrogations only because she is somewhat more than merry. Barbara is not in any way a negligent mother (not of Lucy, at least). On the contrary, she is so solicitous that she engages in what is known as enabling behaviour, bankrolling her daughter’s habit.

When the first act ends with Lucy entering a crisis intervention centre we know the second act can’t simply be an hour-plus of “all better now”, so the question is to what extent she will relapse because of Barbara’s excessive mothering and how far, conversely, she will confront her mother over various unspoken family matters.

The recovery, like the decline, is neither smooth nor inexorable. It is a matter of the titular knot of the heart, which in a Sanskrit phrase must be broken in order for self-knowledge to take place, a process necessary for each of the three women.

None of the central trio in Michael Attenborough’s astute production makes it easy for us to identify with her. Lisa Dillon’s Lucy is arrogant and mendacious, Abigail Cruttenden’s Angela consumed with aggressive bitterness and Margot Leicester’s Barbara obviously in avoidance and/or denial. (The other two performers are Sophie Stanton as a counsellor at the crisis centre and Kieran Bew as “the men”, largely an assortment of users and medics.) But empathy is present in abundance. The final two scenes (discounting an unnecessary saccharin coda) are compelling not as theatre but as human interaction. We all, in our own ways, need to get unknotted.

Almeida Theatre
Principal sponsor Coutts

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