Pros: Witty, moving and interesting with some accomplished performances.
Cons: Very long set changes which did impact on the pace of the production; making it feel a little disjointed.
Luna Gale is a sixth month old baby who has been hospitalised through neglect. The play starts when she is subsequently placed under the indirect care of social worker, Caroline Cox. Caroline must now decide Luna’s future. Caroline has 25 years’ experience in the Department of Human Services and on first impressions the case seems pretty straight forward. Policy dictates that every effort should be made to reunite Luna with her real parents. But they are young, jobless meth addicts, Peter and Karlie, whose neglect hospitalised Luna in the first place. Caroline needs to work with Peter and Karlie to see if they can pull themselves together enough to be part of Luna’s life. In the meantime, the only other alternative, bar temporary foster care, is to place Luna with Karlie’s mother, Cindy. Cindy is clean- living, hard-working and god-fearing. She despairs of her daughters conduct. She can’t explain why she’s gone so far off the rails but desperately wants to help. Thus Luna is temporarily placed with her. However, as Caroline gets to know the family better it becomes clear all is not as it seems and the decision around Luna’s future becomes heart-breakingly and frustratingly complicated.
Gilman’s new play does well in demonstrating the complex, overwhelming, all-consuming and bleak world of child protection work in America. It shows Cox drowning in the bureaucracy, politics and paperwork of countless cases every day. All the while trying to maintain a human and instinctive approach to each damaged individual who crosses the threshold of her office. Her role in their lives is paradoxically powerful and powerless. She can make a real difference but only so much. And as the cases continue to pile in, she has to watch from afar, as the people she has gotten to know and care about, are set loose to sink or swim.
Sharon Small’s portrayal of Caroline is very accomplished. She performs Cox as having an expert blend of experience, nurture, instinct and pragmatism which I can only hope is a true depiction of those working in the jobs – because it’s clearly needed. She is supported by an equally strong cast who all manage to affirm that each and every one of us has their vices, no matter how good their intentions.
The intriguing part of Gilman’s play is to ask how typically American it is. The issues raised strike a chord with care work in the UK but there are key differences in America’s political and social make-up. One is that over 45 million people in the US can’t afford private health insurance and do not qualify for government benefits. The other is that religion has an entirely different influence in, what is a much, much larger country. (Although it does feel as if Gilman explores this rather bluntly but as I’m not American I can’t be sure.) The differences are clear enough, but as the UK’s public services continue to change, it feels pertinent to consider the future of this country too.
One drawback, however, is the set changes. They are quite long and complicated which does affect the pace of the play. I did find my attention wandering a few times. Otherwise, though this is an enjoyable, moving and thought-provoking piece of new writing. It is performed in an intelligent and accomplished way. And, despite the plot outcomes, it does manage to show a slight glimmer of hope. Because at the centre of the chaos, there are people like Caroline Cox who are there really trying to help– I hope!
Written by: Rebecca Gilman
Directed by: Michael Attenborough
Design by: Lucy Osborne
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Booking until: 18 July 2015
Booking Link: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2015/luna-gale/