The Mercy Seat

21st to 28th January 2023

Neil LaBute | The Crescent Theatre | Directed by Robyn Dickinson

Imagine: you work in New York’s World Trade Centre and wake up on the morning of September 12th 2001 in your lover’s bed. You were not at work yesterday. Your wife and children think you might be dead. The opportunity to disappear is there for the taking. Do you answer the constant phone calls from home or ignore them and start a new life? What sort of person even contemplates such a question?

This is the tantalising premise for ‘The Mercy Seat’, playing at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre this week. Written by Neil LaBute, the play is darkly comic and relentless in its exploration of a range of important themes: family, love, betrayal, power, loyalty, trust, infidelity, hopes and dreams.

The Ron Barber Studio at the Crescent is a hidden gem of a theatre space in the city centre and is the perfect setting for this troubling and controversial play, one of the first theatrical responses to the September 11th attacks. Directed by Robyn Dickinson, it’s an emotionally draining and intense two-hander which forces us to confront some very uncomfortable questions about the human capacity for cruelty and selfishness.

Joe Palmer plays Ben Harcourt, a 30-something man-child who, at the opening of the play, stares into his constantly ringing mobile phone unable to make a decision about what he wants. He is in the apartment of his boss and mistress, Abby Prescott, played by Angela Hewett. Both actors deliver impressive performances, thrusting us into a domestic world of moral confusion and barely suppressed rage. It’s compelling stuff. Will they dare to use a terrorist atrocity as an opportunity to start again?

It's difficult to describe the kind of man Ben is in a polite way so I shan’t bother: he is a prick. A selfish, egotistical, self-important prick. LaBute’s writing brilliantly exposes his pathetic weakness and it’s testament to Palmer’s performance that I remain furious with him hours after curtain down. A section of the play in which he seems to acknowledge his own appalling flaws only serves to heighten this feeling of animosity. Why would a woman as intelligent and confident as Abby be with such a man? My doubts about this question are my only reservation about a play which otherwise manages to explore the complex interconnections between love, duty, betrayal and trust brilliantly.

Angela Hewett’s controlled performance as Abby nicely contrasts the childlike tantrums of her younger lover. Her struggles to connect with him as a woman and not a boss provide many of the play’s highlights. A section in which the graphic details of the couple’s sex life are argued over is brutal in highlighting the power games which underlie so much of human interaction.

If it all sounds a bit heavy, don’t let that put you off - there are more laughs than you might expect, given the controversial nature of the play. Guaranteed to get you thinking and talking about some thorny questions. Highly recommended.

The Mercy Seat is playing at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 21st to 28th January 2023.

The Mercy Seat