Akedah by Michael John O’Neill. Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, Eton Avenue, London NW3 to 18 March 2023. 3***. William Russell.

Two sisters meet after a long separation when the older one, Gill (Amy Molloy) comes to the pentecostal settlement in their home town on the coast of Norther Ireland where Kelly (Ruby Campbell) is an inmate. It is one of those sects dominated by a charismatic male, one Richard who we never see. From the start it is clear that something is wrong. Richard. the Harvest boss, is constantly on the phone to Kelly, while Gill has mistaken a Harvest baptism in the sea below where Kelly lives as someone in danger and tried to rescue them. Kelly also has a family toy, a stuffed sheep, which one knows is going to be torn to pieces as the sisters struggle to become friends. It seems they had an abusive father, their mother had managed to get Kelly into care but stayed with her husband and Gill. She left home, now works as a cleaner, and has not seen her sister in years. The fact that the two players seem roughly the same age is a bit of a problem – Gill is apparently 33 while Kelly is only 18. But the arguments that rage are worth listening to and Michael John O’Neill does have a way with words. The play, getting its premier in Hampstead, won the Brentwood Price Original New Voice in 2019, but seeing it staged suggests that in spite of his eloquence maybe he still has more to learn about creating a play from his material. That someone is going to cause new problems is clear from the outset as the programme lists a third character Sarah (Mairead McKinlay), who is 53. She seems to be the woman Gill thought she was rescuing from the sea when in fact she was being baptised, but she also turns out to be their mother. The relevance of the title seems a mite obscure – at least to me – but apparently refers to the Bible story of Abraham and Isaac presumably it has to do with parental sacrifice. Sarah, having given up one daughter to save her from the abusive father, failed to escape herself and her other child grew up oppressed by his memory. The best thing to do is sit back, enjoy the performances – Gill’s attempts to save Kelly from a world she clearly sees as dangerous as the one she grew up is gripping – and not worry too much about the fact that not only do the sisters look about the same age but their mother looks about the age Gill is supposed to be. Director Lucy Morrison has taken the material and managed to make it into a more theatrical experience than what is on the page would suggest and designer Naomi Dawson has created a curtained set – the piece is performed traverse fashion – which isolates them from the real world or perhaps imprisons them in the world of Harvest.

Kelly: Ruby Campbell.

Sarah: Mairead McKinlay.

Gill: Amy Molloy.

Director: Lucy Morrison.

Designer: Naomi Dawson.

Lighting: Kevin Murphy.

Sound: Beth Duke.

Production photography: Helen Murray.

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