Review: Lay Down Your Cross – Hampstead Theatre

Ever had that feeling in theatre that you’d rather be watching paint dry? Well in Nick Payne’s Lay Down Your Cross, for a few minutes at least you can do just that. Lay Down Your Cross takes realism to a whole new level, dialogue here is played out in real time, every pause, every stutter, every um given full credence. At times it even makes Pinter’s trademark pregnant pauses seem flowing.

Tony is living alone in a flat, having left the family home following the breakdown of his marriage. His daughter has moved to Australia and his estranged wife has turned to drink. There’s an elephant in the room, however, with the forthcoming funeral for their son forcing uncomfortable questions about his death finally to be asked. The questions are never fully answered, recriminations and reasons are flung around but the spectre of Adam’s death remains an enigma.

Payne’s script captures the awkwardness and repressed anger and regret of a family torn apart from grief and it’s certainly an accurate observation of natural speech pattern; the question is does it actually make for good drama?

Played for 90 minutes straight through, the naturalism soon loses its novelty and we yearn for a bit of dramatic variety. When an argument finally erupts over a family dinner and both accusations and food begin to fly, we soon lose any tension as we then spend five minutes watching the family clear up the resulting (literal) mess in silence. Realistic, yes, but as drama flawed.

The ultra-realistic script makes things somewhat difficult for the cast – with so many pauses, stutters and half sentences it often sounds like a piece of improvisation. Engagement isn’t aided by four characters that we never really care about – the self-absorbed isolated daughter, the unfaithful girlfriend and the destructive parents. There are, however, some nice observations; Susan Wooldridge’s Grace, using alcohol to mask her pain and block out reality and Angela Terence’s guilt ridden girlfriend.

Clare Lizzimore’s direction certainly achieves a naturalistic style but at the costly expense of any plot development.

There is a germ of a tantalising story here – looking at the destructive impact of depression, death and grief on a family. At the moment though, while you can admire the realism, the lack of real dramatic progression kills any engagement. By the time two characters end the play painting a wall, we’ve lost interest and any compassion for these characters.

Photo: Robert Workman

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