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Torn review at Royal Court, London – ‘hits like a tidal wave’

Indra Ove and Adelle Leonce in Torn at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton Indra Ove and Adelle Leonce in Torn at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Nathaniel Martello-White’s sophomore play, Torn, is a dynastic saga fed through a meat grinder and spat out in one great mulch. It starts as something like an AA meeting – plastic chairs, tea in an urn – where Angel has assembled her mother, aunts, brother and cousin, but once the talking starts Martello-White’s script hits like a tidal wave.

Scenes neither begin nor end, they just flow continually. It’s about as non linear as it gets. All the family are always present in Richard Twyman’s production, often talking over each other in a confusing crash of words, and chronology is barely discernible. Times merge in this one place, a kind of reckoning, as they sit in a circle of chairs and thrash out stuff they’ve tried to bury – chiefly an allegation Angel made about her stepfather when she was a child.

The cast is formidable, particularly Indra Ove as Angel’s mother First Twin (only three characters get a name), a fearsome battle axe of a matriarch. She exudes a palpable determination to make a good life for herself – but that comes at the expense of her children. And Adelle Leonce as Angel combines desperation to be heard and guilt at the way her family has fallen apart.

This is a mixed race family, and that has deeply affected them in many ways, but it’s not quite the driving force here. Instead it’s the desire to put family first and to do better than the generation before. Martello-White understands the way families communicate – often badly – and how what is left unsaid can have damaging consequences.

Bewildering in its form, occasionally at the expense of sense, this is a sophisticated piece of writing on race, nature and nurture.

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Non-linear, formally adventurous, at times bewildering, play that asks: should family always come first?