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Merit review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘maddeningly inexact’

Karen Ascoe and Ellie Turner in Merit at the Finborough Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Karen Ascoe and Ellie Turner in Merit at the Finborough Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

First seen at Theatre Royal Plymouth in January 2015, Alexandra Wood’s punchy two-hander about the effect of austerity in Spain has gained a whole new creative team for its London premiere but – sadly – has lost none of its relevance.

Sofia, fresh from university, has scored herself a plum job as PA to a filthy rich banker while many of her more able peers – the lost generation – are mired in perpetual unemployment. Her mother wonders out loud just how her daughter might have landed such a job.

It’s a cracking opening. The mother’s moral ambivalence (not to mention jealousy) at accepting handouts from her corporate sell-out daughter is palpable. The fact that it emerges as a dig about sleeping her way into employment is delicious.

But then the play jerks in a different direction, as Sofia becomes a mouthpiece for benevolent capitalism and her mother the spokeswoman for the suffering masses. Despite the efforts of performers Ellie Turner and Karen Ascoe, huge swathes of Merit are essentially a long bickering match between the world’s haughtiest daughter and Spain’s most unreasonable mother. Each scene is a vague repetition of the last, while the dialogue is often maddeningly inexact.

While there are some juicy ideas at the heart of the play – the corrupting influence of money, Baby Boomers vs Millennials – it all became hopelessly tangled as the meek mother lurches further into anti-austerity extremism. Her transformation is somewhat – purposefully, I think – ridiculous and it strikes me that director Tom Littler might have benefited things by offering up a more satirical reading of the play.  There is a lot more humour in the play than this production allows for.

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Anti-austerity play that begins intriguingly but becomes increasingly less credible