At the start of Hilary Bell’s play Splinter an unnamed married couple are delirious with joy. For nine months, their four-year-old daughter Laura was missing. Now she has been returned to them by the police, unharmed, and they can hardly believe it. She doesn’t look quite like the Laura they remember, but it’s understandable that she would have changed during the time she was away.
Lucy Bell and Simon Gleeson. Photograph © Brett Boardman
They have no idea who took her, what happened to her during those agonising nine months, or how she has been found. What’s more, they won’t let the police interview the child. But she is back. The three of them are now trying to regroup in an isolated beach house. But Laura won’t talk (perhaps she’s traumatised), food that was once her favourite no longer seems to have the same appeal, and she destroys the toys she used to love.
Doubt begins to infect the father. Little things gradually convince him that she isn’t their daughter and his suspicions start to fester. The Mother, meanwhile, holds Laura as close as the child will let her, reads to her and does everything she can to rebuild their trust.
Bell wrote The Splinter (as it was originally called) for Sydney Theatre Company, which premiered the play in 2012 using a creepy wooden puppet for Laura. Lee Lewis, who is the director of this new Griffin Theatre Company production, leaves it to the audience to imagine Laura.
Acknowledging references including Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, folk tales about changelings, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and the Grimm Brothers’ The Snow Queen, Bell has written a gothic thriller full of ambiguity, in which we watch a relationship founder under all the strain. Lucy Bell (the playwright’s sister) and Simon Gleeson give emotionally raw performances as the Mother and Father, with obsession engulfing both in different ways. The gradual fracturing of their relationship, as a gulf opens up between them, is brilliantly portrayed.
Simon Gleeson and Lucy Bell. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Set designer Tobhiyah Stone Feller has created a convincing wooden beach shack, with the moody, shadowy lighting by Benjamin Brockman, eerie sound by Alyx Dennison, and abstract video design by Mic Gruchy working together to build a growing sense of unease that effectively heightens the mother’s jumpy nerves, and the father’s growing suspicions.
The idea behind Splinter is an intriguing set-up for a drama full of unanswered questions, but the play doesn’t quite have the suspense to send shivers up the spine or keep you sitting tensely on the edge of your seat. There are also times where the conversation between the Man and Woman feels a little too explanatory. But Lewis has drawn wonderfully febrile performances from the two excellent actors and there are little moments where the disquiet really is palpable.
Griffin Theatre Company’s Splinter plays at the SBW Stables Theatre until October 21