The show follows the story of women’s refuge attendee Marnie, escaping a context of domestic abuse to search for some form of sanctuary. The topics – social care, social justice, social work – are incredibly pivotal, important. In this most Brexit of Britains the high political issues can often drown out those that still exist, and will exist, on the ground – in this case East London.
Roundabout will always be a practical and versatile space for the issues at play. As Marnie’s story unfolds, we as the encompassing audience act as confidants, voyeurs and, towards the end of the piece, antagonists – Marnie hurling frustrations and anxieties out at us, as well as a disembodied, pre-recorded voice that delivers her a verdict. The pre-record here is vital – her sentence is pre-composed, there is no altering her fate or that of her family. She is trying to argue with a bureaucratic machine. There is no victory.
The ace in the hole for Box Clever comes in the form of Avi Simmons as the supporting figure, multiroling as the various inhabitants of Marnie’s refuse as well as her daughter Autumn (and various other fleeting figures). Moving around a trolley of instruments, props and vocal distortions, Simmons is also an incredibly capable performer – her stillness while playing Autumn during a climactic scene being the highlight of the show.
There is a scrappiness here, one that may in fault be down to the direction from Stef O’Driscoll – some scenes feel too static, in need of movement across the the whirling Roundabout stage. The other problem is volume – tonally the crescendo, the dramatic build, is somewhat overshadowed by Marnie’s early explosions of anger; as they went on these felt less and less poignant.
Monsay Whitney’s text is fraught with contemporary issues – regarding the welfare state (the phrase ‘we don’t have the resources’ being one of the more explicit examples), the fact that women’s refuges can sometimes not live up to the safe space label they aspire. Her construction and delivery of Marnie’s language is straightforward – necessary. The use of three men, each displayed on separate placards (The Daddy, The Psycho, The One) to contextualise Marnie’s life did feel slightly more forced however – a playful ploy at the start of the show that somehow gets forgotten as time goes on. It felt unnecessary to categorise Marnie’s story based on the men involved.
The production design functions aptly – Simmons’ clown outfits and red noice, at first parodical, become horribly garish as the fallacy of the circumstances becomes more pronounced. There is a swathe of fact underneath the fiction, and with that Box Clever certainly resonates.