The family doesn’t exist that doesn’t have some underlying tensions beneath the surface. But for some familial bonds, deep-rooted resentments fester, making even ‘clearing the air’ a toxic probability. Written by Philip Ridley and directed by Max Harrison, Leaves of Glass is a robust four-hander that deals with ‘circumstantial evidence’ and ‘personal truths’.
Steven (Ned Costello) runs a private graffitti removal service in east London. Married to Debbie (Katie Buchholz) who is expecting their first child, Steven is seen as responsible and steadfast. Among those who work for Steven is his younger brother Barry (Joseph Potter). Throughout the play, there are hints that Barry is ‘unreliable’ and has his fair share of ‘demons’. The nature of these and why they exist at all drives half of the dramatic events in the play.
Key to defining the clues in the siblings’ past is their respective relationships with their parents. While not visibly present, their father casts a big shadow in their lives. As someone who died when they were children, the father’s death would have had a strong impact on their emotional development. But because he passed away under suspicious circumstances and – arguably more importantly – because the family never talked about ‘the incident’ or him in general, for someone like Barry who has never learned to compartmentalise memories and feelings, he’s ‘handicapped’ and seen as stuck in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour. Of course, if everyone had a real inkling of what’s going on Barry’s head, they would least understand some of his past actions.
The play also brings up the subject of the siblings being the ‘favourites’ of one particular parent and/or adopting their mannerisms. In the case of Barry, it is easy to connect the dots between himself and his father, even without the exposition in the play. Both were ‘troubled’ for one reason for another and both required periods of ‘convalescence’… As for Steven, while there are noticable differences between himself and his mother, both have boundaries about what they will or won’t talk about and for the sake of keeping things ‘on an even keel’, pretend everything is alright.
As their mother, Liz (Kacey Ainsworth) very much knows her own mind, likes to take charge of situations and doesn’t like ‘mess’ – ‘real’ or emotional. When Liz chooses to be ‘straight-talking’, she’s prone to perceptive – if tactless – comments about the family. Liz is also important in showing how consciously or unconsciously parents can ‘do a 180’ in their expressed opinions of family members. Conversely, once the audience has known Liz for her while, we recognise when she may using ‘euphemisms’, even if she doesn’t realise it herself…
While Steven’s relationship with his mother isn’t always easy, the difficulties that develop between them ‘coincide’ with Debbie’s insinuations about his ‘infidelity’ and Barry’s accusations of guilt for ‘misdeeds’, past and present. But why this surge in complaints about Steven? Is the basis for the complaints real or imagined? In some ways, it wouldn’t be a Philip Ridley play if the audience wasn’t to question at least one character for being an ‘unreliable narartor’. In the case of this play, no one is doubt-free…
By the end of the play, the audience is left wondering who was right, who was deluding themselves, who was telling the truth and who was to blame – and the scary part is that it’s all plausible.
This production of Leaves of Glass is the first since 2007. However, far from being dated or passé, its message regarding personal truths, the revisionist view of family history and the culpability of everyone to some degree gives it a perennial relevance.
© Michael Davis 2023
Leaves of Glass runs at Park Theatre until 3rd June.