Dennis Kelly’s ‘Debris’ at the Southwark Playhouse

Dennis Kelly’s bleak yet gripping play Debris was his first  script, written in 2000. Innovatively part-funded via Kickstarter, this Southwark Playhouse production celebrates the 11-year anniversary of the show, which was first staged at Theatre 503 in 2003.

Its director is Abigail Graham, whose ground-breaking work Molly Sweeney is the first to have transferred from the Print Room. It first went to The Lyric Belfast and then on to tour Northern Ireland earlier this year. Graham’s work with organisations such as Clean Break and offenders within the prison system brings a fresh set of eyes to the dysfunctional childhood of the siblings in this one-act play.

The set is literally debris. Signe Beckmann, the designer, sets the scene beautifully in an intimate and stark grey-walled room, scattered with heaps of dull smashed-up concrete and red brick rubble.

We come across a pair of teenage orphaned siblings, Michael (Harry McEntire) and Michelle (Leila Mimmack) who plunge us into the devastating nightmare that was their childhood.  With an air of innocence that entwines their tattered lives, they convey a dark and broken childhood filled with unanswered questions and unsettling conclusions.

As they draw on the wall and play with stones to fill their time, the story unfolds through monologue after monologue, revisiting scenes of their miserable past through various filters.

In a masterful retelling of stories viewed through their inexperienced eyes, they verbalise their deepest thoughts about God, the paedophile Uncle Harry, their abusive and alcoholic father and their mother’s death. Throughout the play, they kick and throw stones across the room, adding to the narrative of their confused mindsets and distorted frustrations.

Michael delivers an account of his 16th birthday, a day imbued with horror and the shedding of blood, when he came home to discover his father’s suicide by crucifixion in the family living-room. He laments his skewed vision of life, which is juxtaposed with the peaceful dream of a boy who lays his head on his mother’s lap, seeing this vision of perfection through a window, like watching TV.

McEntire’s portrayal of Michael’s ache for a “normal” life is most visceral in the scene where he discovers life in a waste chute – a discarded and half-dead baby. At one point, he exclaims the meaning of love through his visualisation of breastfeeding the child with his own blood and finding solace in this shrivelled baby, whom he calls “My Rubbish”. It is heart-rending.

Michelle, with a balloon in her hand to symbolise her embryonic state, fires away with several differing  accounts of her mother’s death. Michelle’s story imagery is provocative throughout,  but none more so than the image of herself as a foetus growing plant-like in her mother’s dead corpse, eating the almost decayed womb in order to survive. Mimmack grapples brilliantly with Kelly’s detailed words and Graham’s insights into the chaotic lifestyle, weaving a character that’s multi-dimensional through a lens of deep despair.

This intensively engaging production will makes you think about violent realities of life and how traumatic events can throw your life off course and into a spiral of chaos and decay.  Kelly’s language is brought to life by emotionally wrought performances by McEntire and Mimmack who each bring their own unique voices to the script.

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