Moscovitch is a Canadian playwright, never performed in the UK, and director Laura McLean’s decided introduction of her fellow Canuck to Bristol audiences pays off in dividends. It is a poetic, sure piece of work that never overplays its hand and lets its horrors tiptoe upon you slowly, rather than batter you over the head. It’s a psychological thriller that borrows in tone from early Polanski and has echoes of Emma Donoghue’s superb novel Room. Adopted siblings Aaron and Claire are growing up in a quiet Ottawa suburb but it’s clear from early on that this will not be an easy adolescence. Aaron appears to settle in; he’s into hockey, action figures and loves pets. Claire is more troubled; inappropriately touching classmates, inserting teenage mutant hero turtles into places she shouldn’t; she’s not the kind of girl you would want to trust with the family cat, as we soon find out.
It’s structured as a memory piece, both siblings looking back at a time past. Aaron is tortured by the memories of his adoptive sibling, of how abuse affects not just the victim but also those in their orbit. Claire relates a parallel story of a couple in their neighbourhood, a middle-aged computer technician and his mail order Thai Bride. It’s a story that obsesses her, of the damaged bonds that hold people together, even as it erodes the soul.
It’s a tough watch but McLean directs with economy and an ear to its rhythm that ensures we are drawn into the ensuing horrors. She blends perfectly the art of the writing and the traumas of the themes. Based on the work here, she has a bright future. She is helped along by performances from two of the stand outs from the 2015 BOV graduating year. Kate Cavendish is twitchy, awkward in her own skin; a damaged presence with innocence behind her eyes that suggests – even as she goes down what appears an inevitable path – that there may still be hope. Sam Woolf makes the arc of Aaron even more tragic. His patience, patent goodness and love for his sister are eroded by events and his eventual betrayal destroys him as much as it does her. The final shot to the plexus saw a tear roll down my usually stoical cheek. It’s a recommendation as much as a warning.