The Sewing Group review at the Royal Court Theatre, London – ‘thrilling’

Sarah Niles, Jane Hazelgrove and Fiona Glascott (back) in The Sewing Group at the Royal Court Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Sarah Niles, Jane Hazelgrove and Fiona Glascott (back) in The Sewing Group at the Royal Court Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The expanse EV Crowe’s play covers is dazzling. A mother destroys herself as she measures her successes and faces up to her failures. An entire world unravels in startling, baffling ways. And yet that colossal span is traversed in increments so small and so steady that you’d hardly know civilisation was collapsing.

By the end, the play reveals itself to be a bleak satire on the daily grind of working life. But, at the beginning, two women sew. Another joins. Then another. From its stark start, with only two colours in Stewart Laing’s design – the black cloth of the actors' 18th-century clothes and the knotted brown of the bare wooden hut they're in – and short stabs of scenes consisting of one word, then a handful, the play builds, its colours brighten and its context expands.

As the lights come up on each scene, the sewing group have changed their positions or their postures, acting out poses that, it becomes clear, are too staged to be real. The slight falseness, the non sequiturs and incongruous patterns of speech are played to perfection by the cast. Fiona Glascott in particular, as newbie sewist Maggie, cleverly mismatches the assured and controlling tone of her voice with the gentler, warier softness of her facial expressions.

Language is filtered and distilled in Crowe’s script. Every single word counts. Strangely contemporary phrases sneak into this olde worlde. “I’m gluten-free,” says one character. It could be lifted wholesale and transplanted into the latest series of Black Mirror if it weren't so sure of its theatricality and its dismantling – even literally at one point – of theatre's conventions and structures.

Served wonderfully by its cast, this is a thrilling, meticulous reproach against a society desperate to reconnect with its past, even as it drifts inexorably away.

Verdict
Meticulous writing and a strong cast make for a thrilling social satire
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