Readers of a certain age may remember with fondness seaside holidays and the obligatory ‘Punch & Judy Show’, but childhood innocence often robs us of the realisation that Punch was a murderer who beat his wife, child, and anyone who came within spitting distance. It is these puppets brought to life who introduce us to Tom Ratcliffe’s new play Evelyn, now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
Based on real life events, we discover that Evelyn Mills has served time in prison for providing a false alibi for her husband, who murdered their child. Vilified in the press, Evelyn has a new identity and has reportedly started a new life by the seaside.
Sandra (Nicola Harrison) arrives in Walton-On-The-Naze with a secret past, she’s expecting to move in to a one bed flat but unexpectedly finds herself flat sharing in a retirement village with Jeanne who is suffering from dementia. A relationship blossoms with Kevin (Offue Okegbe) but his sister, Laura (Yvette Boakye) is wary of the stranger.
Evelyn forces its audience to make assumptions from the beginning, and then sets about challenging them. Sandra certainly has problems, she admits as much herself, she’s a liar and often her behaviour is odd, but does that mean she’s actually Evelyn Mills?
Ratcliffe explores the role that social media plays in forming and shaping opinions; in this case it’s a community Facebook group that inspires a form of mob justice, but just as in real life, we can never be sure if justice has truly been served.
Surrealism is blended with realism as our Punch and Judy characters pop up to taunt the audience, recreate aspects of Sandra’s story, or ask us outright what we believe. The disconcerting music – played live on stage – helps set the tone that this is a story that should make us uncomfortable, and leave us questioning our own opinions.
There’s plenty to explore in this two hour play. First and foremost, the is she/isn’t she question, then there’s the fractured relationship between a brother and sister, and the unlikely friendship between Sandra and Jeanne.
There are elements of dark comedy in Evelyn and it’s testament to Ratcliffe’s writing that it often catches us off guard. Rula Lenska’s spellbinding performance as Jeanne drives the story in different, and often unexpected, directions.
Evelyn has you questioning everything, and wondering whether you can trust your own eyes, but it also demonstrates the dangers that lurk around us, and the consequences of our actions. When it comes to writing a thrilling drama, Tom Ratcliffe shows us that’s the way to do it.
Evelyn is at Southwark Playhouse until 16th July 2022.