The Vault Festival, London
Written by Ian McEwan
Adapted by David Aula and Jimmy Osborne
Directed by David Aula
Ian McEwan is a remarkable storyteller. He takes the darkest aspects of the human condition and magnifies them into the grotesque, the particular horror of The Cement Garden being the sexual explorations of incestuous siblings whose mother lies rotting in the cellar. One of McEwan’s earliest novels, this adaptation has preserved all that was fragile, tender and unspeakably vile in the oeuvre.
Where all families have their issues, the parents in this tale along with their clutch of three teenage kids and a much-later arrived toddler define dysfunctionality. Dad’s emotional cruelty towards the children is evident, whilst mum cannot help but blur the boundaries between what is right and wrong as she clumsily advises elder son Jack (George Mackay) into puberty. The parents’ early death, dad’s unexplained though with a hint of suspicious circumstances and mum’s through cancer sets the four kids adrift with no moral compass. Fearful of being taken into care as orphans they hide their mother’s death and bury her in the cellar. As the misguided feelings develop between Jack and elder sister Julie (Ruby Bentall) the ghastly spectre of perverted values cascading through the generations is clearly signalled.
None of this makes for easy watching, either from an emotional or physical perspective. Crammed on benches we arch our necks to capture the action and dialog that takes place on gangways above, as well as on the vault’s stone floor. The infant Tom is an inspired piece of stagecraft. Represented by a wicker puppet and brilliantly voiced and animated by David Annen, we quickly forget the puppeteer and wince at the distorted development the young child is exposed to. Mackay and Bentall are chillingly plausible teenagers who amidst jealousy, hormonal acne and a growing sexual awareness, grope their way towards their nauseating consummation. The incessant rumble of trains above the Vault only adds to the tale's infernal atmosphere.
Aula and Osborne's adaptation has reached the end of a seven year development. It is fine theatre that makes for a compelling if unpleasant evening.