The concerns at the centre of This Much I Know may strike very close to home for an audience of students on the brink of adulthood. Our measures of success and failure, of genius and mediocrity, and how one steps out of the shadows left by an unfair childhood play out in this familial drama that explores the rift between estranged siblings. These questions unfold with pain and honesty throughout the New Writing Festival production; one which manages to capture the undercurrent of extraordinary turmoil beneath the lives of people hoping to attain some kind of normality.
Edie and Naomi are sisters; Edie is a success and Naomi is a failure, it would seem. Their mother raised them to be geniuses and while Edie took well to the militant structure of their lives, Naomi cracked under the pressure, a dichotomy that is epitomised in an episode in their childhood where they were entered into a game show to find Britain’s smartest child. Naomi lost in the final round to her younger sister. Now, the aftermath of this upbringing hangs over them, when Edie decides to return home for a bit from her high-profile job while Naomi, who now runs a café with her wife, tries to negotiate payment for IVF treatment with her ever controlling mother. As the family is pulled back together, unresolved tensions are brought to the surface, reflected in scenes that alternate with reality, in which Edie and Naomi are back to compete against each other in a new game show, entitled This Much I Know.
The initial binary opposition of Edie and Naomi had me fearing that I would have to endure a production of contrived, unrealistic characters who lived up to stereotypes that had been produced many times before, acted out in the artificial game show setting. This was not helped by the presence of their mother, whose extreme ignorance to her daughters’ needs, whilst being the driving force in the plot, was exaggerated to a point of discomfort. And yet how quickly I was proved wrong.
The play challenges the very standards it sets up at the start as Naomi struggles with her need for money to have a family, and Edie has to come to terms with the dissatisfaction her money has brought. Yet this is not a typical underdog narrative; Naomi’s stubborn bitterness and Edie’s steady change of heart, and the way that the two grapple with one another and their childhoods, ensures that our empathy is never invested in just one character.
The set is humble, but cosy: a bookcase and armchair invite us into their home, whilst a podium effectively doubles as the central piece in the game show and the counter at Naomi and her wife Alex’s café. This efficient use of the space in the Burton Taylor creates a surprisingly cosy environment in what could easily be a small, dark stage, grounding the play in the reality of the home.
By alternating between the main plotline and the abstract game show scenes, the play ensures that its characters have a space to convey their innermost thoughts, reflecting their development as people without the need for any awkward expository dialogue. There is a refreshing understanding of the importance of scale; small events in the story are reflected in the larger troubles that the sisters face in their competition. Edie’s refusal to accept a free coffee builds on the problems that money creates within familial affections.
By the end of the show I found myself too entangled in the emotions of these characters that I had forgotten all about the qualms I had at the start. And while some aspects could have been executed more effectively – I felt that the attempts to humanise the mother came too late and unconvincingly, for example – the warmth and realism of the production carried it through.