Our New Girl

'Our New Girkl' by Nancy Harris at the Bush Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

'Our New Girkl' by Nancy Harris at the Bush Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What do you give the woman who has it all – a beautiful London home; a handsome, plastic surgeon for a husband; and a healthy eight year old son, with another child on the way? A nanny, if you’re Hazel Robinson’s (Fleetwood) husband Mark (Bazeley), who sends Annie (Gough) from Sligo without discussion or warning, while he’s on a charitable trip to Haiti. Nancy Harris’ new play for the Bush opens as both women try to rationalise the arrangement – not a ‘mistake’, according to the arrival, but a ‘misunderstanding’ – while Richard remains out of reach.

While the convention of the disruptive stranger is a staple of the western dramatic tradition, what makes Harris’ take particularly interesting is its specific focus on parenting which is a fairly contemporary concern. Although the couple’s son Daniel (Teale) is the only child to appear on stage in the play, the adults either struggle to come to terms with their own upbringings, as with Annie whose mother killed herself and whose father beat her; or endeavour to have their authority over Daniel recognised, as is the case with all three.

Photo: Manuel HarlanWhile Richard’s power is wielded rather effortlessly from abroad or when he eventually arrives back in scene five, the women are forced to compete against each other. In most respects, they are opposites, and represent very different approaches to parenting. Hazel is an achieved former lawyer who gave it all up to raise a child she now struggles to connect with and suspects is troubled; while comparatively uneducated Annie loves children, especially Daniel who she thinks just needs more attention.

Harris’ writing is razor-sharp, and in its delivery by the superb cast, the rhythm of her sentences is brisk and punchy. The tone manages to deftly shift from being genuinely disturbing, to suspensive, to humorous without ever detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter, which is also a credit to Charlotte Gwinner’s careful direction. Perhaps the script’s greatest achievement is that it never allows us to take sides with one character over another for long, as everyone both is and is not how they are seen by others. While the tension steadily builds throughout the play as if pre-empting a tragic conclusion – a bloodbath if we take the ominously signalled knives at face value – the final scene between Hazel and Daniel, when both Richard and Annie have left separately, seems to restore a sense of normality without directly apportioning blame.

Knowledge and power are constantly in flux in the play world, so much so that the actors are always anxiously alive to the moment. Fleetwood is terrific as the frustrated mother and wife, her commanding poise and dagger looks as seductive as they are unsettling. To all appearances, she is at battle with herself as well as her family, although by the time Richard arrives on stage, we sense he has much to do with her insecurity. Bazeley capitalises on his character’s arrogance, as he harps on about his plastic surgery practice, or his charity feats, or smugly dishes out orders to his family. When Hazel supports the school’s punishment of Daniel for staring at a new Chinese pupil, he repudiates her decision, using it as an occasion to humiliate her in front of her son, while asking Annie what she thinks. This is a turning point in the play, when Richard makes it clear that her status is unstable.

The audience both gasp and laugh at Richard, who Harris gives enough rope to hang himself, instead of reducing him to a stock villain. Although he presents himself to the world as altruistic, Harris shows how his own family suffers as a result. She goes so far as to frame him as a do-gooder who fetishes the weaknesses and traumas of others: this is no more apparent than when he kisses the scar Annie incurred at the hands of her father. This is a rare moment of surrender from the vulnerable twenty-eight year old girl, perfectly pitched by Gough, who typically envelopes herself with dipped shoulders, crossed arms and swaddling cardigans.

Of course there’s a risk of reproducing a cultural stereotype when a poor, abused Irish nanny seeks refuge with a privileged English middle-class family. When Daniel tells his mother that he saw Annie and Richard kiss, the latter denies it outright, on the basis that she’s "from Sligo... just a poor bloody farm girl whose mother dies when she was young and who’s exorcising her demons looking after other people’s kids." But Harris just about contains this danger by letting the character supply sufficient information about her background, which gives it dignity and validity, while also undermining the integrity of the family with whom she works. When passions rage after Daniel’s disclosure, he is rapidly framed as a scapegoat, and suddenly parenting seems to have little to do with children’s needs after all.

Under Large’s design, we are given an open plan, black and white showroom kitchen, that at least aspires to be pristine at all times. But clutter appears in the form of boxes of olive oil which are stacked throughout (the unsold stock of Hazel’s failing business venture), and in the form of Daniel himself, who manages to hide under the centrally placed table at crucial moments, illuminated by Kemp’s eerie design.

Building on the reputation of her 2011 play No Romance, Our New Girl reveals Harris to be a playwright who is especially skilled at close range social observations that are keen, uncomfortable and often very funny. It feels as if she is methodically and mischievously pulling on a thread, which could unravel the fabric of her subject entirely, if she didn’t want us to enjoy ourselves too.

Fintan Walsh is Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary, University of London.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Our New Girl by Nancy Harris

17 Jan - 11 Feb, 2012

Produced by The Bush Theatre, London
In The Bush Theatre, London

Directed by Charlotte Gwinner

Design: Morgan Large

Lighting Design: Hartley T A Kemp

Sound Design: Elizabeth Purnell

With: Mark Bazeley, Kate Fleetwood, Denise Gough, Jonathan Teale/Jude Willoughby