Stuart King

Review: THE BOOK OF GRACE at Arcola

A patrol officer Vet who lives on the Mexico-Texas border with his much younger second wife Grace, is to be awarded a medal for his service. The presentation ceremony offers the couple an opportunity to patch things up with the patrolman’s estranged son Buddy by inviting him to attend. But will he come, and if he does, will everything go to plan, and just whose plan is it anyway? Directed by Femi Elufowoju jr, this simmering 2010 drama by Suzan-Lori Parks receives its UK premier at Arcola Theatre.

The Book of Grace, Arcola TheatreThe Book of Grace at the Arcola Theatre. Photo Alex Brenner.

With an oddly off-kilter and brooding paternal presence serving to fill-in the uncomfortable and unspoken history between Vet (Peter De Jersey) and his son Buddy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) the piece, rather like a Tennessee Williams outline, takes a while to get going, but bit by bit each character reveals their view of the world, their memory of family, and any ulterior intentions and motivations they may carry with them.

Vet’s second wife Grace (Ellena Vincent) has learned to live with her husband’s insecurities and jealousies and rather than focus on the hole he has dug for her in the back yard, she compiles a book of good things THE BOOK OF GRACE which provides a creative outlet for her frustrations, enabling her to record and focus on those things which bring her solace, optimism and joy.

Buddy is a service veteran who initially plays along with the game of reunited happy families, but he clearly harbours feelings for Grace, and his father’s inability to own the dark truths of their past or help him secure a future, means the die is cast and from early in proceedings the audience is left in no doubt that the play is headed for fractious and tragic territory.

The piece is littered with observations which serve as metaphors for the wider lived experience of those trying to shake off tyranny, whether it be in the guise of King George III and the colonies, the ongoing racial suppression and inequality faced by black lives in America, or indeed the intimidation and controlling nature of a bullying and violent husband. The three cast members acquit themselves handsomely in roles which each have moments requiring extreme containment of emotions and at other times, explosive and volatile outbursts. In a world hell-bent on exhausting itself with border disputes, the callous obliteration of human rights and a wilful determination not to hear or understand one another, the play is at times a hard watch and reflective of the deeply harrowing times in which we live, yet for all that, it remains a remarkably thought provoking achievement in this small boundary pushing East London space.