Jordan is a deeply challenging play: harrowing at times, uncomfortable throughout, asking difficult questions about just what we can forgive when it’s done in the name of motherly love. Written in the early 90’s by Anna Reynolds and Moira Buffini, the one-woman script is arguably less well-known than it ought to be, and it thoroughly deserves the powerful and sensitive revival it’s given here.
The story’s told by Shirley - an eloquent, personable young woman, who sadly wasn’t gifted the best of starts in life. When Shirley meets Davey, he offers her the promise of something better - and for a few precious moments, it’s shaping up to be a touching story of love near the bottom of the social ladder. To Shirley, a studio flat is as good as a castle, while Davey’s motorbike represents both freedom and escape. The pregnancy that follows is unintended, but Shirley wants her baby… and for a while she’s able to believe that, deep down, Davey does too.
But we’ve been told from the start that something terrible will happen to their child - and as Shirley’s life with Davey begins to slide towards cruelty and violence, the tension increases with each remembered scene. Will this be the day that her beloved Jordan dies? When it finally comes, the tragedy is softly unexpected, heralded not so much by Davey’s savagery as by the barbarous processes of society.
Actor Sara Gray is devastatingly believable as Shirley, bringing authenticity and immediacy to the good times and the bad. Her style is conversational, yet her performance has a quiet intensity, conveying the excitement of love and the later despair of isolation. Shirley tells us that meeting Davey made her feel alive, and Gray’s vivid portrayal of those few happy memories filled me with vitality, too. Later, as her desire to protect Jordan takes an obsessive turn, I shared the overwhelming desperation of a world closing in; and crucially, when Shirley tells us that that she loved her son, we all bear witness to an almost tangible truth.
Robbie Carnegie’s direction is subtle and skilful, injecting changes in pace to break up the monologue and using simple visual motifs to separate parts of the story. Sparing use of sound draws us into Shirley’s memories, and I found it genuinely jarring when a well-placed line or gesture reminded me of where she was in her present day. The ending offers no simple answers, but poses thought-provoking questions, about whether the punishment or forgiveness dispensed by society can ever be as powerful as the verdict we pass on ourselves.
It’s interesting to read reviews of earlier productions of Jordan, right back to its genesis in 1992. There’s a different tone to the early ones; I think that our empathy for Shirley’s situation, the assumptions we carry into the theatre, must have changed in the 25 years since then. It’s to the playwrights’ credit that the script still feels keenly relevant, but it’s Sara Gray who carries us on Shirley’s journey - who embodies a mother’s desperate love, and makes us feel that rawness inside our own hearts. This isn’t a play you’ll enjoy exactly, but it’s one you shouldn’t miss.