Vivienne Franzmann’s second play sees her comfortably exceed the potential shown in her award-winning debut, Mogadishu.
Danny Webb (Joseph), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Alex) and David Ajala (Simon) in The Witness at the Jerwood Upstairs, Royal Court, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
As strong as that play was, this is a stronger, more confident work. One of the most memorable aspects of her first play was the nuanced relationship between the lead character and her daughter - here Franzmann creates another emotionally complex and beautifully observed parent-child relationship.
Alex is a bright young woman in her first year at Cambridge who, when still a child, was rescued from Rwanda by Joseph, a famous war photographer. He took her home the UK and adopted her, raised her, loved her. The striations of their relationship are expertly drawn. While the bond between them is palpable, Franzmann also conveys a sense of underlying tension and irritation - and while some of this is normal father-daughter baggage, some of it is more specific to their unusual situation. It’s the shaded, elegant way the playwright achieves this balance that gives the play its potency.
When a third character is introduced, there’s a worry that the play might capsize, but Franzmann along with director Simon Godwin keeps things on course. The shift in dynamics is well handled and, while there’s perhaps one emotional upheaval too many, the piece develops in ways that are - mostly - unexpected and exciting.
Lizzie Clachan’s incredibly detailed set transforms the stage into a Hampstead living room - with the audience arranged around the edges - and the performances are totally captivating. Danny Webb is, at times, heart-breaking as Joseph while Pippa Bennett-Warner’s moving, measured performance as Alex borders on the extraordinary.