‘In Skagway’ at The Arcola

In the bleak setting of Alaska during the end of the gold rush, In Skagway explores a dysfunctional family’s struggle to survive.

The plot revolves around Francis Harmon, an aspiring actress who had one big break and has devoted her life to try to recreate it. Now, her fame has faded and she has suffered a stroke leaving her wheelchair bound and unable to talk.

Looking after her is May, meek, dutiful and unable to accept that Frances may not recover. While May’s daughter, T-Belle, has only contempt for Frances, who is referred to as her aunt.

At first, T-Belle’s hatred for her helpless aunt seems inexplicable. But as the play progresses, flashbacks piece together the story of how this disjointed family came to be. Frances, who is actually just someone that May met on the boat from Liverpool to America, has dominated their entire lives. We get a sense that May has always done what was best for Frances, rather than her own daughter.

Frances’s dominance is demonstrated even in T-Belle’s name. May wanted to call her Teresa; Frances wanted to call her Belle. The imbalance of the ‘compromise’ is symbolic of their relationship.

The flashbacks allow the audience to see Frances before her stroke, revealing the stark contrast between how she was before – lively, outspoken and overwhelmingly selfish – and how she is now – an inanimate figure that sits in silence.

As we learn the ways that Frances has controlled their entire lives, it creates a powerful but uncomfortable dynamic for the audience. Despite having suffered a terrible stroke, it’s almost impossible to have any empathy for Frances.

The intimate setting of The Arcola theatre means you are immersed in the storyline, and the fact that the show runs for 90 minutes without an interval adds to this. Apart from the flashbacks, the action never moves from their living room. It can feel a bit stifling after a while, especially with no interval, but perhaps this is the point.

While the action doesn’t move around a lot, it’s the characters that keep your attention. As the play progresses, a fourth character is introduced: Nelly, a prostitute who, like Frances, is only out for herself. With a four-strong all female cast, men are referred to but never seen.

At the heart of it, In Skagway is about the power plays in female relationships, which can be just as intense between friends as between enemies.

In Skagway is showing until 1 March at:

The Arcola
24 Ashwin Street
E8 3DL

Box office: 020 7503 1646

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