Rage in “Vera Vera Vera” is counterbalanced by wit — sometimes bitter, sometimes uproarious — and even the most vicious moments carry raw tenderness that holds the audience in thrall. Conflicting emotions are expected in a drama about the return of a dead soldier from Afghanistan. What you don’t expect is for those emotions to be held in such grippingly mature balance in a first-time playwright. Graced by transfixing performances in Jo McInnes’ production, Hayley Squires’ debut is small at just 60 minutes, but its reach is big.
Squires wrongfoots the audience from the start. The opening scene (of five) in which 16-year-old Sammy (touchingly open Ted Riley) and Charlie (Abby Rakic-Platt) sound each other out during school lunch break doesn’t even seem to be addressing the play’s central theme. Yet not only do we later learn how Charlie is connected to the dead soldier Bobby, we are also introduced to the mode that governs all the characters’ lives: fighting.
Sammy, a young boxer, is furious with another (unseen) boy and is threatening to beat him up, an action that upsets but also excites Charlie. Across three scenes set over one day, we see not only the outcome of the fight but a tentative romance developing between the two.
Their scenes are interlaced with even more hostile confrontations three months earlier between Bobby’s sister Emily (Danielle Flett), his drug-dealer brother Danny (cold-as-ice and terrifying Tommy McDonnell) and his best friend Lee (put-upon Daniel Kendrick) who, secretly, is sleeping with Emily. Bobby’s imminent return to their village is going to be a news story and the possibility of TV exposure pushes beliefs — some racist, mostly foul-mouthed, all violent — out from hiding.
Exchanges between the three of them aren’t just blunt, they’re brutal. Since bullying Danny’s supply of drugs controls them all, Danny is lethally intent upon wielding his power. But Squires doesn’t write shouting matches. She constantly makes you aware of the emotional toll and the cost of the hatred that is running and ruining her characters’ lives.
That’s clearest of all in Emily. Wire-thin and taut with the need to appear strong, Flett vividly conveys Emily’s exhaustion. Ground-down to the point of truth-telling — “We aren’t good people, Lee, we’re shit” — her clear-eyed delivery of how they really are is simply bewitching.
After a riskily fast opening, McInnes’ pacing and direction of the emotional undertow is so acute that Squires’ metaphor achieves its link to both the poetic and the overtly political with neither strain or sentimentality.
As with previous breakthrough discoveries at the Royal Court Young Writers Festival including U.S. dramatist Christopher Shinn and the U.K.’s Simon Stephens, this will surely launch Squires’s career. The running time, caustic nature of her writing and the eschewal of, for the most part, developing plot means “Vera Vera Vera” will have a future probably confined to small-scale theaters. But the compassion surging through her lacerating dialogue and her structural command promise a glowing future for the playwright.