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The Book of Grace – Arcola Theatre | Review

For Vet (Peter de Jersey), there is ‘us’ and ‘them’, and in remarks that might have pleased Oswald Mosley had he been around to hear them, there’s talk of fences and barriers to entry – ‘them’, or ‘aliens’ as Vet (short for veteran, rather than veterinarian) calls them, must be kept out. Such is his role within the United States Border Patrol (USBP), taking pleasure in being outdoors in all weathers and, in stereotypical American fashion, pointing a gun at anyone coming across from Mexico to the United States illegally.

Peter de Jersey in The Book of Grace. Photo credit: Alex Brenner
Peter de Jersey in The Book of Grace. Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Grace (Ellena Vincent) is, as plays of this nature tend to be, the complete opposite – always trying to see the positives, being warm and welcoming, particularly to Buddy (Daniel Francis-Swaby), effectively her stepson, though that term is never used. Vet barks, as he barks almost everything else, that Grace isn’t Buddy’s mother. Buddy, meanwhile, has decided, having read portions of Grace’s book, unpublished as it is, to identify as Snake. It is, the audience is told repeatedly, the former nickname of Vet.

The deeper the narrative becomes, the less convincing it gets: the ever-angry Vet unleashes his fury in the second half by – wait for it – tearing up bits of paper. There is domestic violence as well, and the production quite rightly shields the audience from witnessing it in progress, only showing its effects. His only pleasure, it would seem, is watching blue movies on his laptop – otherwise, he’s thinking about work even when he isn’t at work, and even sets himself up as a self-declared deity, yelling, “I am that I am”.

I wonder how long someone with such fury and intense paranoia would last taken out of what has effectively become their comfort zone – nobody told Vet a considerable number of ‘illegal aliens’ arrive on planes and overstay their visas. Or maybe someone did, but he refuses to believe it, delusionally thinking he alone can stop immigration, a belief solidified somewhat by the USBP giving him some kind of special recognition award. As far as the family drama goes, it’s initially surprising that Grace has lasted living with Vet for as long as she has. Then again, it isn’t, because it isn’t as straightforward as it might seem for a victim of domestic abuse to ‘just get out’.

An on-stage microphone is used just once, totally unnecessarily. Some good use is made of the stage space, and beyond it, with characters using the aisles the audience use to enter and exit the studio. In Grace’s book lies some poetic qualities, which only serve to slow down what might have been a briskly-paced and high-octane production. Vet’s views, rather disturbingly, are taken seriously, and while it is entirely possible to imagine there might be some people in the USBP who genuinely hate everyone who isn’t American – American history evidently not being something Vet is clued up on, the character and the play as a whole might have worked better, and been more convincing if such views were challenged more strongly, or even lampooned.

That this is a fairly tight family unit, albeit very fraught, comes through in how information is fed through piecemeal. But in doing so, the play is, perhaps inadvertently, harder to comprehend than it could have been in its details. Elsewhere, the show goes the other way, with a chapter in Grace’s book about a dog called Trouble, and a large coffin-sized hole Vet has dug in the backyard, yet to be filled. Ultimately, the play tries too hard to be a ‘state of the nation’ show but within a single family unit. While it is in some ways refreshing to encounter a show that paints an alternative picture of the American Dream, the issues the production tries to bring to light are far more complex and nuanced than presented here.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Cast
Grace Ellena Vincent
Vet Peter de Jersey
Buddy Daniel Francis-Swaby

Company information
Director Femi Elufowoju jr
Writer Suzan-Lori Parks
Set & costume designer Will Fricker & Rae Smith
Lighting designer David Howe
Composer/Sound designer Simon McCorry
Production manager Casimira Hayward-Peel

Grace, a hopeful woman desperately seeking positivity in the world, keeps a book of everything good she witnesses, and lives with her abusive husband Vet, a patrol officer on the Texas-Mexico border. When Vet is awarded a medal for his services in catching smugglers trafficking marijuana at the border, Grace invites his estranged son Buddy to join them at the ceremony that is to be celebrated by the whole town. But Buddy arrives armed with resentment, an ultimatum and (several) hand grenades. Can Grace heal the rift, and contain the threat?

THE BOOK OF GRACE
16 May – 18 June 2024
Studio 1, Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL
Mon – Sat 7.30pm, Sat matinees 3.30pm
£33 – £12 | arcolatheatre.com

Selected Reviews at the Arcola Theatre

The Book of Grace – Arcola Theatre 2024 | Review

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The Poltergeist by Philip Ridley at Arcola Theatre

The Dance of Death at the Arcola Theatre | Review

We Started To Sing at the Arcola Theatre

Broken Lad by Robin Hooper at the Arcola Theatre | Review

Voices From Home at the Arcola Theatre | Review

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