Brenda Alison O’Donnell as Brenda Jack Tarlton as Robert. Photograph: Nobby Clark
Curious relationship… Alison O’Donnell and Jack Tarlton in Brenda. Photograph: Nobby Clark

In E.V. Crowe’s new play, coming to The Yard following its debut at HighTide festival, security guard Robert drags his reluctant girlfriend Brenda (Alison O’ Donnell) to their local Community Action Group. He hopes that sharing their story might persuade their neighbours to help the down-on-their-luck couple out.

But while Robert, played by an ashen-faced Jack Tarlton, might be fretting over flats and the future, this isn’t what worries Brenda. She stares at the audience with a hunted look, her feet have left tar-like black prints across the floor and she can’t seem to say her own name. An explanation, of sorts, comes when she tells Robert matter-of-factly she is actually “not a person”.

Sparse dialogue and slow dramatic action mean the roles are challenging but with Caitlin Mcleod’s direction Tarlton and O’Donnell give a convincing portrayal of this curious relationship. Robert is in turn cajoling and gentle as he persuades Brenda into taking the mic – he sings Bowie’s ‘Starman’ to encourage her to loosen up, electrocutes himself repositioning fans to cool her down but then calls her “selfish” when she won’t do as he asks.

Later (the community group has still not arrived) there are fun moments tinged with pathos when Robert humours Brenda by “pretending to be upwardly mobile”. They mime getting a dog, calling it Colin, having friends over and burning the dinner. Brenda goes to put Colin outside and Robert catches eyes with the audience, as he slowly mimes washing up – will she return or is the game over? She does come back, but not for long.

Like Mersault, the existentialist hero of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger, Brenda seems detached from the commonplace. But the audience doesn’t see her reach any kind of affirmation under the glare of the community hall spotlight.

On paper the play says it explores what life would look like ‘free from the challenges of being a person’ – but rather than being liberated, for most of the play Brenda is just a non-person shackled to the banality of everyday human existence. And then she is through the fire exit and gone.

Perhaps Brenda finds her freedom, but we can’t know how that pans out, and a lack of context or backstory means we’re left as indifferent as she is to what becomes of her.

Brenda is at the The Yard, Unit 2a Queen’s Yard, White Post Lane, E9 5EN until 17 October

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