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Surrender at Arcola Theatre | Review

If this looks like a show that suits the Edinburgh Fringe more than it suits London’s Arcola Theatre, that’s exactly where Surrender is headed, with a chair and a couple of garments on pegs for a set, all of which are used at some point. Phoebe Ladenburg’s character, identified only as Mother, has a visitor, whom she refers to only as ‘you’ but as the monologue progresses becomes increasingly clear it’s her daughter. Or is it? Someone else who the daughter claims is her mother is picking her up after this visit – to a prison, which isn’t something immediately obvious (I initially wondered, given the lack of standard issue prison uniform, whether this was meant to be a secure psychiatric unit).

Phoebe Ladenburg in Surrender at Arcola Theatre.
Phoebe Ladenburg in Surrender at Arcola Theatre.

There’s quite a lot of unknowns that remain to the very end of the show. She talks about what might or could happen after she is released, but is this a short, medium or long-term prospect? Mother also comes across as a somewhat unreliable narrator. She admits that her feelings and emotions were out of her control on occasion, and lashes out at ‘everyone’ for apparently not coming to her aid when she needed help, but it’s not clear that she actually sought assistance, or whether whoever she sought assistance from were in a position to be of service.

The play’s title, then, is a sort of admission of defeat for Mother – the odds have been stacked against her for some years, partly thanks to her daughter’s disappearance, presumably when she was still a dependent child (the daughter is ‘now’ old enough to visit the prison on her own). I trust it isn’t too much of a spoiler, given the mother-daughter conversation in the present, that the daughter was found. In concluding that she will, one way or another, need to let her daughter go at some point, Mother decides ‘today’ is as good a time as any other. There’s a certain level of maturity and level-headedness that goes along with a decision of that nature – that she lets the now adult daughter decide her own destiny is admirable.

The demonstration of a wide range of human emotions reflects Ladenburg’s versatility, particularly in a subplot about her character’s acting career (rather brutally, she was dropped by her agent weeks after becoming pregnant). Yeah, it’s one of those shows where an actor plays an actor. Social workers had her (that is, Mother) ‘flagged’ – if a child goes missing, it’s a safeguarding concern, and they start poking their metaphorical noses into other aspects of home life. Without giving it all away, there are a whole load of seemingly deliberate misinterpretations of the facts, and with Mother’s take on what happened against that of so-called professionals, she wasn’t believed.

This, then, is a story that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Is it about misogyny? At one point, Mother demands to be questioned by a female police officer who is also a parent, having been subjected to questioning by a male officer without children. Is the narrative saying the law is an ass? Either way, it does at least strongly assert that in the world of social services, Mother doesn’t know best. Immediately after the performance I attended, most of the people in the audience wanted to take time in the theatre bar and/or on the journey home dissecting and discussing what they’d just seen. I don’t blame them – there’s plenty of food for thought in a show that doesn’t, deliberately, provide any straightforward solutions to a number of complex and interconnected issues.

Unlike many shows that tackle a variety of topics in a single act, this one didn’t feel rushed, despite the overarching ‘pressure’ of a strictly timed prison visit. Direct addresses to the audience helped to maintain interest in a subtle and compassionate production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Mother – Phoebe Ladenburg

Written by Sophie Swithinbank in creative partnership with Phoebe Ladenburg
Director Associate: Nancy Medina
Movement Director: Jess Tucker Boyd
Sound Designer: Dominic Brennan
Stage Manager: Rose Hockaday
Lighting Designer: Stacey Nurse
Costume Designer: Pam Tait

Surrender looks at the system of social care, which catches people in its web – often saving lives – but in this case, things may have fractured beyond repair. Once a parent has been flagged in the system, a murky trail of mistakes and malpractice is logged… and there is little chance to turn back the clock.

Inspired by Kate’s journey into obedience in The Taming of the Shrew, Surrender interrogates expectations of submission within motherhood.

Hannah Farley-Hills for HFH Productions presents
Arcola Theatre, 19 June to 13 July 2024
Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe, 1 to 26 August 2024


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