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Review: Surrender (Arcola Theatre)

Review by Dan Sinclair


As you take your seats for Surrender, it is clear that this is a play built for fringe. With only a chair, a few strip lights and two coats, it is destined to be performed in a small box with poor air conditioning in Edinburgh. And with its transfer to Summerhall later this… Summer, it is no doubt one to watch. Writer and co-director Sophie Swithinbank is one of the most exciting writers on the circuit, with her play Bacon scooping up four OffWestEnd Awards as well as the Soho Theatre’s Tony Craze Award back in 2018. 

Her latest play Surrender, is a sharp, witty and effortlessly natural monologue that moves at a breakneck pace through the recent life of its central character, ‘Mother’. Sat in a prison visiting room, the mother meets her daughter. After sending numerous letters to no reply, the daughter has finally come for a conjugal visit with her adopted mother waiting out in the car. The rest of the play hangs on one key question - how did we get to here? This premise lumps the audience with a sense of guilt, we are watching a play to find out the crime. We want to know what she did, as opposed to why she did it. Swithinbank’s writing makes no subtleties about this, at many points using direct address to confront us about our obsession with true crime stories - don’t worry everyone, we’ll get to the juicy bit in a minute. 

This is a play that resents its audience. This is made clear in the performance from Phoebe Ladenburg. As ‘Mother’, she is almost jarringly natural, each line seems to trickle down from her brain and into ours. As a performer, she is a joy to watch and listen to. Perhaps most interestingly, through Ladenburg’s performance and Swithinbank’s writing, we are presented with a deeply flawed character. At times, she is quite repellent. She’s snobbish, and classist, she looks down her nose at a character she meets vaping outside the police station - ‘Andreas’, and she resents her friends. But she is also a human. As the story progresses, it is clear that she has been hanging on by a thread for years now. In her situation, being a bit ‘flawed’ is an achievement. She’s an insomniac, an out-of-work actor, a single mother, she has no friends or family (that we know of), and the care system has utterly let her down. Through grief, motherhood and the system she lives within, she has been worn down into a woman she barely even recognises anymore. 

At only 75 minutes Ladenburg fires through the monologue at a remarkable pace, this is until the last 15 minutes. Come the final act of the story, it’s all starting to wrap up. The ‘true crime documentary’ in our heads has concluded, so what are left with? Unfortunately, I think this is where the play loses so much of the steam that it has generated over the past hour. The dialogue takes a much more poetic turn, echoing its earlier call for us to merely ‘Soften, listen.’ Whilst this may be an issue of personal taste, it reached that point where it started to feel like it didn’t know how to end itself. 

The highlight of the show was Stacey Nurse’s outstanding lighting design. We zip around a handful of locations: prison, home, interrogation room, dream, audition room, Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre, a café and design by Nurse means that we know exactly where we are almost instantly. I particularly enjoyed the use of overhead strip lights to create beautiful waterfalls of light, some haunting stage images from these still stay with me now. 

I do not doubt that this will be the start of an exciting journey for this new play. Whether you catch it in London or Edinburgh, it is a beautifully crafted monologue that should not be missed. Go for the writing - stay for the acting - and get called out by the fourth wall breaks. 

Surrender is playing at Arcola Theatre till 13th July.

Photos by the production

1 comment

1 Comment

han gu
han gu
Jul 04

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