The National Theatre has quite mixed fortunes when it comes to new play commissions, some become and instant hit – like After Life and the storming success this year of Jack Absolute Flies Again – while others can feel significantly more under-nourished and perhaps staged a little too soon. April De Angelis’s new play Kerry Jackson falls into the latter category with a tale of a relationship across the class divide that looks to explore polarised opinions about homelessness, immigration and compassion between two people who seem, on the surface, ill-suited. But the play never delves beyond its cliched creation of character, political viewpoints and behaviours that retain an essential artifice in their construction, while De Angelis is never sure how she wants the audience to respond to the contradictory scenarios she establishes.
Kerry Jackson is built around two things – the first is the character of Kerry herself, a 52-year-old restaurateur opening her first business in Walthamstow Village and brilliantly played by Fay Ripley. The second is an ongoing scenario in which a homeless man named Will has pitched himself in close proximity to the premises and is repeatedly noted as defecating behind the bins for which Kerry, who openly finds him repulsive and a perceived threat to her livelihood, wants him to be removed. And the biggest issue for Kerry Jackson is where these two ideas interact, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to despair of her views, support them or try to see both sides.
The play just isn’t sure what it wants to say and De Angelis cooks up what often feels like a disconnected collection of scenes that struggle to find either a consistent plot or a political position that it wants to advocate. Is Kerry Jackson making a plea for greater humanity when dealing with homelessness and the individuals it affects, or is Kerry right to be nervous around Will and to eschew the weak liberalism of left-leaning Stephen and his daughter. No one in this story develops, every character is the same at the end and there are no resolutions. Arguably, this reflects a reality in which people do not change that much, but it doesn’t make for engaging or terribly satisfying drama when there is nothing for the viewer to take away.
There are lots of things happening simultaneously in Kerry Jackson but the light-touch treatment of homelessness is its linking thread. The audience sees both perspectives; Kerry’s strident view on Will’s existence and her disgust with his physical appearance and what she believes to be his personal failure to manage his life. This is offset by a rather mawkish interpretation of rough sleeping in which the sensitive Will, know as “The Reader” for his love of books, interacts with the left-wing characters Stephen and Alice who try to help him, at least at a surface level by having conversations and bringing him food. All of that seems relatively straightforward if not terribly incisive, and a potential trajectory in which Kerry changes her mind seems likely.
But then De Angelis muddies the waters so drastically it becomes increasingly unclear why our sympathies must shift from Will and what this mean for the play’s messaging. A crucial scene comes in the Second Act where, having met the characters in several scenarios, Will approaches Kerry one night when she is alone in the restaurant, ostensibly to thank her for giving him a coffee a few days before. In Indhu Rubasingham’s production, the scene is played as potentially threatening, not just through Kerry’s palpable fear in which she edges around the furniture to avoid giving Will (Michael Fox) a physical opportunity to get close to her, but also in the tone of the encounter in which the man’s behaviour is erratic and intimidating. The concept of a relatively defenseless woman (whatever her views), alone in a small room with a younger, taller and stronger man who is covering the exit leads the audience to imagine Will as the very danger that Kerry has always suggested. And later, hearing about his drug problem, it begins to alter our impression of this character and his purpose in the story – the unanswered question though is why and what De Angelis means by it.
There is something potentially Pinteresque about Will and the situation which, like The Caretaker, creates an opportunity for an unknown outsider to enter an established world and disrupt it. The potential power shifts could be quite an interesting directional shift in an otherwise naturalistic play and one that, as is often the case with Pinter, could make comments about wealth and class being overturned, with new social orders coming into effect. But Kerry Jackson is a comedy and doesn’t take this opportunity to use the character as any kind of reflective instrument either for Kerry or the audience who are instead lead to think Will wasn’t so nice after all. Meanwhile, Stephen’s liberal hand-wringing over him is ultimately no more helpful when Stephen’s kindness only goes so far before it begins to encroach on his own life. What then is Will’s purpose in this play?
Everything in Kerry Jackson should be in service of the the title character and the greater understanding or development of her personality. And she is a complicated creation, at least in Ripley’s performance, who in some ways is admirable; a middle-aged woman starting her own business to which she is dedicated, someone who doesn’t give up on the things she wants and is confident enough in herself to start a relationship with Stephen despite the differences between them, refusing to be cowed by the class shaming that is sometimes directed at her. Kerry can also be kind, even thoughtful, she cares deeply about her friends including chef Athena (Madeline Appiah) and unseen pal Carol, has plenty of self-awareness and even conceeds that Will is “alright.”
But then there is the other side to this character who complains about homelessness and immigration levels, lashes out in thoughtless and sometimes racist ways, voted Leave despite running a tapas restaurant and loving Spain, and is comfortable manipulating others to help herself. Kerry is also prone to making graphic revelations about bodily functions that tend to end conversations. What is lacking in both the character of Kerry and in the wider staging is any sense of the grounded reality of these people, that they have convincing lives beyond and between the scenes. Go around the corner to the Lytteleton and Clint Dyer will transport you with his consuming Othello, hauling you ready or not into that world, but Kerry Jackson just doesn’t feel real enough.
And part of that is convincingly creating a backstory for Kerry that barely exists in this production. Who is she and where does she come from? De Angelis drops a single hint that she gave up a child as a young woman but it is never mentioned again, nor is her inability to find a lasting relationship. At 52, Kerry is unmarried, childless and opening a business; she seems to be happy, even flourishing yet she is an archetype, a colourful one granted, but the writer never fully investigates her story or her psychological state. How has giving up a baby or not finding a significant other shaped her attitude to life – if it hasn’t then why mention it at all? What has Kerry been doing during her adult years prior to joining the restaurant business and how is she finding the money to open this one? Why tapas? Why Walthamstow? And what does she ultimately want? Has class been a barrier to her success? Does she resent being looked down upon by people like Stephen and how does she reconcile all her complicated and contradictory views?
There is so much potential in this character that is never exploited and Kerry as a creation doesn’t actually go anywhere. She doesn’t quite say “I am what I am,” but she may as well because this is the person that De Angelis presents and it becomes the story’s main strength as well as its dramatic weakness. If a character doesn’t change, learn or develop through the action of the play, if they don’t act as a warning or a moral allegory, if the story doesn’t take them or their situation forward in some way, then however funny, impressive or shocking they are, it is not clear why that have been called into existence for 2.5 hours in the Dorfman and why the audience should care.
The same can be said of all of the other principal characters unfortunately. Michael Gould’s Stephen is a man riddled with middle-class guilt, a walking cliche of cloth-bag carrying, bicycle riding, European literature reading wealthy liberalism – “Jeremy Corbyn without the sex appeal.” Recovering from his wife’s death, there are strands about him cheating on her when she was sick that are referenced but not used to comment on his own personality in any substantive sense – is he a man who leaves when the going gets tough? – and he has an antagonistic attitude to Kerry that blossoms into a primarily sexual attraction. Again, Gould gives him some life but his philosophy teacher doesn’t feel real and also ends up exactly where he started, learning nothing from Kerry except to reinforce his own prejudice about her. The audience also learns nothing about why this man would find solace with such a different woman. Is De Angelis’s point that opposites don’t attract whatever Paula Abdul may have to say on the matter?
The least effective character is Stephen’s daughter whose role in the drama seems even less clear than the others. She is there as a slightly more extreme version of her father with a compassionate earnestness that sets her against Kerry, although not immediately and is largely seen as misguided or misplaced. This lightly sketched creation also talks about grief but never demonstrates it, seems to encourage her father’s dating life but then resent its, demands greater freedom from his stifling care and then behaves like a sulky child for much of the story. Alice (Kitty Hawthorne) is even rather vindictive, inviting Will into the restaurant to give him Kerry’s stock for free – and behind the backs of the owner and chef (who gets nothing but a deportation story herself) – but never displays an ounce of understanding for anyone else. It is not clear what De Angelis uses this character to do other than give Stephen someone to talk to and be another face in the restaurant rather than explore the layers of her own grief and fears about change resulting from her mother’s death.
None of this is aided by the deeply artificial scene setting which from the start never escapes the feeling of watching actors in a play. De Angelis sets this drama in the tapas restaurant and in Stephen’s suave kitchen. Set designer Richard Kent creates a revolving block set for these two otherwise static rooms, except almost nothing said in Stephen’s house is site specific, certainly in Act One and the rotation becomes a distraction with Stephen and Alice failing to justify this investment in a private space for their relationship, adding to the lack of reality in Kerry Jackson that seems to infect place and structure as much as it does dialogue and character. Kent’s restaurant set works better (although three tables isn’t much of a business) but still there is little atmosphere of a busy London borough, no sense of bustle or distant traffic, or even other customers to suggest place and it makes the two locations of the play, however detailed their realisation, seem adrift from the city they supposedly exist in.
Kerry Jackson is ultimately the vehicle for De Angelis to explore the polarisation of left and right at the local, everyday level. This is the prism through which attitudes to social justice, education, wealth, class and character are then explored. Yet the results it too stagey and inconclusive to elicit any real meaning for the audience, problems too fundamental for any major changes to be possible before this week’s Press Night. So while Kerry Jackson has some funny lines and moments, and indeed Ripley’s very enjoyable central performance, there needs to be another six months of development time to crystallise its perspective and determine what it wants to say. Compare this to equivalent works that pit opposing views against each other such as Simon Wood’s Hansard or the sophistication of James Graham’s political but character-driven and entertaining This House and Best of Enemies (opening in the West End last week) and Kerry Jackson ultimately feels too lightweight in its treatment of the issues it covers.