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One for Sorrow review at Royal Court, London – ‘a riveting, quicksilver thriller’

Pearl Chanda and Sarah Woodward in One for Sorrow at Royal Court, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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Dread explodes into horrific reality. Two bombs – one in a club, another outside a bar – rip bloody holes in London. We hurtle into pitch darkness, and suddenly we hear the voice of a fugitive, running through the streets, searching for safety. We sense his sweat, his fear, his hot breath and his bursting heart. We are scared for him. We want him to be saved.

But when he reaches the place where he’s been promised sanctuary – an affluent white middle-class home – doubt drips in. He’s covered in dust, he refuses to take off his bulky anorak, he’s carrying a heavy rucksack. And – the factor everyone’s most careful to avoid mentioning – he’s Asian. A liberal family are about to have their politics and morals sorely tested – and so, thanks to Cordelia Lynn’s gripping, quicksilver, subtly manipulative play, are we.

Directed by James Macdonald with a cool, pitiless precision that never wavers even as he tightens the vice, One for Sorrow entertains while it insidiously appals. There’s a faint echo of Pinter in its set-up – the menacing interloper in a domestic setting, the touches of the absurd – but it works on our preconceptions and neuroses with its own special skill.

The family, headed by Sarah Woodward as mum Emma and Neil Dudgeon as dad Bill, were halfway through dinner when they heard news of the attacks – which trickles in insistently from an unseen TV in the next room.

To her parents’ alarm, eldest daughter Imogen (Pearl Chanda) has posted an invitation on social media to anyone seeking refuge, while teenage Chloe (Kitty Archer) finds the atrocity strangely thrilling. When they’re confronted with John (Irfan Shamji), they’re all uneasy, even if they won’t admit it. He says he’s a mechanical engineering student learning to build “robots – amongst other things”, and there’s something unnervingly droid-like about his calm, unblinking manner.

Perhaps he’s simply traumatised? This cuckoo in the nest also reminds the bird-phobic Emma of a distressing incident with an unlucky magpie that once became trapped in the house. Is anyone safe? Who has the most to fear – and from whom?

The play is electrifyingly plugged into our socio-political moment: the way the characters police their language, and each others’, for PC transgressions; the unabashed contempt for everyone who doesn’t share their enlightened views, even as they themselves accuse such dissenters of bigotry. Lynn also takes swipes at the voyeurism, even fetishism, of our consumption of violent images through the omnipresent media, and our lazy hashtag activism.

True, there are overwrought patches and psychological missteps, especially during the overstretched second act. But this is a rich, fascinating work that sends you out into the night challenged and troubled.

Playwright Cordelia Lynn: ‘It’s amazing to see my text being turned into living theatre’

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Riveting, dramatically searching thriller that lays bare the ethics and neuroses of white liberalism