Dawn King's first play for the Afternoon Play slot is an intense, convincing and provocative exploration of collateral damage. Nathan, a happy and balanced teacher, is hauled from his flat by the police because he gave an old friend a bed for the night. They take his fingerprints and his clothes, and they bang him up for the statutory 28 days of fizzing electric lights and suicide watch. And it's all because the man Nathan let stay in his place turned out to be a terrorist.
The play follows the 28 days following Nathan's release - his attempts to pick up the threads of his life, and the (mostly) well-meaning actions of his friends and family. Nathan tries to return to his job, but when he loses control of a class of taunting kids, the head teacher suggests he take unpaid leave for the rest of the term. Nathan chooses to quit instead, despite loving his job.
His depressed girlfriend Juliet tries to make Nathan see that he too has slid into depression: he stays at home with the curtains closed, ignoring the messages on his answer machine. Nathan's early comment, made at the release party his family throws for him, that his "life has been on hold" gathers significance as we slowly realise that Nathan is frozen by the trauma he's suffered.
More or less rational thoughts about whether he should have been suspicious of his guest shade into more paranoid thoughts about what other people are saying about him, and about his phone being tapped. After imagining that he's going to be attacked in a pub, Nathan has a full-blown panic attack and, soon after, Juliet decides to move out for a while. At the end of the month of freedom, Nathan runs a bath... And I guarantee that you will not hear a scarier dripping tap in a lifetime of Afternoon Plays.
The unsympathetic, no-nonsense David is the dissenting voice in the play, telling Nathan that he's focusing on the past when he should be moving on. He says what most of us, to our own shame, would probably think: that Nathan only has himself to blame... After all, how could you extend a helping hand to "someone like that"? The self-protective and self-deluding notion that we'd all be wise enough to avoid trouble is widespread, and surely a reason why the effects of trauma are so badly understood in the wider community. I can imagine David laughing righteously in the saloon bar about soldiers suffering from battlefield trauma. Nasty though it is, David's viewpoint needs to be articulated - because it's commonly held.
And Nathan suffers from the same warped thinking himself. In the pub, he's suspicious of a man who hasn't touched his pint since he came in. Nathan's friend Tom says, "that's not a crime..." Nathan is over-compensating for his imagined failure to detect a terrorist in his midst, and unwittingly attempting to live by the false wisdom David represents.
"How can I put it behind me when it's still happening?" asks Nathan. What's happened to him hasn't just changed him - it's destroyed him. This play expresses beautifully the terrible waste that can be triggered by heavy-handed security regimes and lack of support for victims of crime - and Nathan is as much a victim as anyone caught up in a terrorist outrage. I don't know if someone in Nathan's position would be offered counselling, or compensation. I imagine, however. that the opportunity to do your bit for the furtherance of justice is meant to be reward enough.
Dawn King has written a powerful play that raises important issues of public policy around the justice system while creating believable characters who struggle with the challenge of mending a disrupted life. All the performances are outstanding, especially Joseph Cohen-Cole as Nathan, Emerald O'Hanrahan as Juliet, Rhys Jennings as Tom and Kate Layden as Libby. Jessica Dromgoole's unfussy production makes impressive use of montage and subtly suggests Nathan's increasingly slippery hold on reality without overwhelming us with pathos (or too much recourse to The Smiths, bless them).
Nathan ...... Joseph Cohen-Cole
Juliet ...... Emerald O'Hanrahan
Maggie ...... Gillian Wright
Tom ...... Rhys Jennings
Miss Warren ...... Tessa Nicholson
David ...... Philip Fox
Libby ...... Kate Layden
Police Officers ...... Piers Wehner and David Hargreaves
Lucie ...... Jade Beaty
Tiru ...... Matthew Hall
Brona ...... Stefanie Walker
Directed by Jessica Dromgoole and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2:15pm on Wednesday 11th November 2009