Upstairs at the Gatehouse
The last time I visited Upstairs At The Gatehouse was pre-pandemic and so I was looking forward to seeing this one-woman show, Somebody’s Daughter, playing as part of Camden Fringe. It’s based on Zara Phillip‘s book of the same title. It’s a play with music charting the complicated life story of an adoptee.
On arrival, the stage is bedecked with a clothes rail, featuring a David Bowie t-shirt, amongst other clothing, a small table with a vase of red roses and a chair. Songs from the 70’s and 80’s (Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ and The Eurythmics ‘Sweet Dreams’) create a lively pre-show atmosphere and took me back to my misspent youth.
The story leads us through many decades in Zara’s life, with her various trials and tribulations – as well as heady teenage years – recounted through voiceover and Zara slipping into character. Simply by donning a pair of glasses and changing her accent, Zara’s transformation into her birth mother is fantastic. Some aspects of the narrative are very well presented: the scene where she meets her for the first time is incredibly touching. Likewise, her later description of finding her birth father is recounted with a light, comic touch and I found myself picturing what this Italian lothario might look like. There is also a musician playing a guitar throughout the show, which is enjoyable.
The moments when Zara sits in stillness on the chair are particularly engaging and one would have to have a steely heart not to empathise with her story and the difficulties she faced having been adopted. Her birth mother’s comment “It wasn’t a long relationship (with your father). Only two or three days” brought laughter from the audience (mine included), but it was sad at the same time.
Occasionally it is difficult to keep up with the timeline (although there is good use of the whiteboard where some key names are noted) and not all the characters are engaging, notably the two male friends, who pop up now and again as voiceovers. Zara often answers the voiceover characters directly, rather than simply reacting to these voices from her past. I found this rather jarring as it interrupts the flow of the delightful storytelling. There are interludes when Zara is pretending to vacuum (one of the voices instructs her to keep busy to provide a distraction from her alcohol issues). The miming of the action and repetition of it later in the show serve as a further distraction from the storytelling.
Sadly, the numerous comical interludes resulted in a disengagement on my part and therefore little empathy with Zara. Whilst some people from her life were well drawn – particularly her birth father and birth mother – others, such as her husband and children, were sketchy and under-developed. Additionally, the scene where she has a seedy, sexual encounter with an ex-boyfriend does not seem to fit with the overall story of finding her birth parents. This lack of depth also served to disengage me from her plight and to lose empathy.
Although there are aspects of the show I enjoyed I often found myself disengaging, either because I was spending too much time trying to fathom the timeline of events, or was being distracted by numerous characters and voiceovers. One hour is a short time frame in which to fit decades of someone’s life. As with anyone’s story, there are some parts which are interesting and others which are not, and for me, telling a simpler more concise and heartfelt story about Zara’s adoption and finding her birth parents would have made for more a captivating and compelling show.
Written by: Zara Phillips
Directed by: Rebecca Thorn
Somebody’s Daughter plays at Upstairs at the Gatehouse as part of Camden Fringe 2022. Further information on this show can be found on Zara Philips’ website here.