For a first-time dramatist, Helen Blakeman can certainly start a play with a bang. The opening scene of “Caravan” is so freshly observed and astute (and beautifully performed) that one is willing to forgive a lot when the play goes into soap-operatic overdrive later on.
Blakeman may not have complete control over her plot, but she knows how to write character: Even if we don’t believe all of “Caravan,” there’s no denying the individual pull of its people.
The first of nine scenes constitutes what already is a near-classic depiction of adolescent sexual fumbling that shifts within minutes from desire to fear to would-be domesticity. Kim (Samantha Lavelle) can’t resist when Liverpool layabout Mick (Nick Bagnall) starts covering her 15-year-old body with ice cream, though she isn’t at all prepared for what happens next. Suddenly, she’s lost her virginity, a reality that would bring her up with a jolt if she weren’t immediately plotting the prospect of home life with an unexpected seducer whose own lust borders dangerously near abuse.
As it eventually happens, Kim, with baby in tow, achieves the partnership of which she has dreamed, but not before a cascade of incidents that would do a TV soap proud. Not content with Kim, Mick also impregnates (and marries) her older sister, Kelly (Emma Cunniffe), while Kelly has a clandestine affair with the much older boyfriend (Pip Donaghy) of her recently widowed mother (Elizabeth Estensen).
In outline, “Caravan” might sound tawdry or contrived, but Blakeman’s seeming penchant for pulp fiction is redeemed by an unerring ear for truth. One smiles at the notion of sit-ups as a tip-off to adultery, just as a grimly comical wedding reception is fully encapsulated as “a meal in a smelly pub.”
Without rant, Blakeman dramatizes distinct attitudes as borne out in two generations of northerners, represented by the middle-aged boyfriend (bemoaning the end of tradition) and the young gadfly Mick, who would rather eat dry chips than look for a job.
Gemma Bodinetz’s expert production is of the sort the Bush does best, and Bruce Macadie’s prop-perfect set fills every bit of the studio space. A screechy moment or two from stage newcomer Lavelle aside, the cast members inhabit their characters so completely that you want to find out even more than the plot tells. “Caravan” has its sensational moments, to be sure; it also has a soul.