Anahera review – deft satire of class, race and family values

Finborough, London
After a boy runs away, a Maori social worker is sent to investigate the parents in Emma Kinane’s engaging if overlong New Zealand drama

A young Maori social worker is sent to a family whose 11-year-old son has run away. Trying to determine what has gone wrong, she asks the mother, Liz, to describe her parenting style. “Tactical warfare,” is the jokey reply, which turns out to have a dark truth to it.

Anahera (Acushla-Tara Kupe), the social worker, is the dramatic interloper who exposes the family dysfunction in Emma Kinane’s play. She refuses to leave this middle-class, New Zealand home after order has seemingly been restored, troubled by the rules and punishments set out by the parents for their two children.

Her unwelcome presence prises open a Pandora’s box of revelations. Parallel storytelling between two time frames 20 years apart sets up the central mystery: is Anahera unfairly judging parents who are simply trying to do their best? Or is something sinister going on? The drama leads us towards the latter too quickly. Some temporal leaps also seem unnecessary and the play takes on greater depth of feeling when a time period is sustained for longer.

Rupert Wickham as Peter.
‘We’re decent’ … Rupert Wickham as Peter. Photograph: Ali Wright

But the play teases out issues of class and race with delicious satire and deftness. Liz (Caroline Faber) and Peter (Rupert Wickham) see themselves above other “feral” parents in need of social-work intervention. “Look around, we’re decent,” says Peter, while Liz reveals her casual racism towards Anahera’s Maori origins.

Taboo-breaking questions are asked of motherhood, too. Liz is an increasingly frightening figure, rivetingly played by Faber. But she retains an edge of the diabolic even if the script tries to circumvent the caricature of the monster mother and humanise her side of the story.

Other thorny issues are broached, from their children’s struggles with forgiveness as adults to their fear of inheriting their mother’s abusive mindset, and Kinane tacitly asks how much control we have to break this inherited cycle.

There is much to be admired in this play, from its intensity to its tension-building. But at over two hours long, the family reckoning becomes gruelling to watch.

• At Finborough, London, until 28 September.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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