Written and directed by Jody Medland, The Unspoken is a distinctive play whose subject matter is seldom tackled in a theatrical context. Set in 1972, we’re introduced to a father and daughter: Jimmy (Will Teller) and Maggie (Hannah Tarrington). What makes their situation so unusual is that Maggie has been blind since birth and Jimmy is her sole ‘carer’… Except Jimmy doesn’t really care for her, but keeps her chained up all day when he’s out at work. Keeping Maggie company is an old radio that is her only ‘window’ to the outside world. But somebody else uses the conduit of the wireless to ‘speak from the other side’…
The play doesn’t make for easy viewing as not only is Maggie effectively incarcerated and regularly beaten by her father, she’s expected to do daily chores. Jimmy also lies to her about their ‘palatial’ surroundings and his true ‘vocation’ as a coal miner.
The purpose of any good play is to ask the audience questions about what they see and how it relates to the outside world. In the case of The Unspoken, there are A LOT of questions, most relating to the world of the play and why certain choices were made.
I have to confess that when we’re first introduced to Maggie and Jimmy, John Fowles’ The Collector came to mind – that and Josef Fritzl/Fred and Rosemary West. As the Barons Court Theatre is located in the cellar/vaults below the Curtains Up Pub, the surroundings already suggest a hidden basement scenario. However, as the play progresses, we realise the situation is more ‘complicated’ than at first appears, especially with regards to who is ‘genuine’. Maggie’s unconditional love for her father – despite her ill-treatment – marks her down as a sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome, though it could be argued that the fear of being completely alone makes her agreeable to all sorts of emotional abuse.
With regards to not capitalising on when the play is set to the fullest, I do feel that this is a missed opportunity. January-February 1972 was when coal miners won a decisive victory at Saltley Gate – an unexpected victory that would lead to the government a decade later to dig their heels in with regards to pit closures. Yet there are no major references in the play to what was happening at that time or to anything else of the era. Why then should the play be set at such a specific time in industrial relations? This being the case, setting The Unspoken at an indeterminate year would make more sense from a narrative perspective. Maggie lives within her ‘bubble’ anyway, which would leave it to the audience to guess when The Unspoken is taking place.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything of interest in the play. As the principal characters, Teller and Tarrington ratchet up the tension between ‘prisoner’ and ‘jailer’, as well as the more ambiguous feelings. The notion of ‘the other side’ communicating with Maggie via her radio is an interesting one and in so doing suggests that things aren’t as bleak as could be for her.
The introduction of Father Alderton (Elliot Blagden) – who is never seen, but only heard from behind a door – poses a number of questions and reminds us why hasn’t anybody rescued Maggie from her predicament? Do people in general even know she exists?
The play’s denouement – in spirit at least – is similar to Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure, where the loose threads are tied together and the heroine has her future happiness mapped out by another. In Maggie’s case, instead of forging her own destiny, there’s another person in her life who she’s made to be reliant on. Not so much ‘free’, she is in the words of Blanche DuBois: “[dependent] on the kindness of strangers…”
© Michael Davis 2018
The Unspoken runs at Barons Court Theatre until 22nd September.