‘YOU’VE got your photographs’, a young man tells a pleading father who feels his daughter is slipping away in The Witness.
This chilling response strikes at the heart of Vivienne Franzmann’s compelling drama about belonging, identity and possession.
Her eagerly awaited follow-up to Mogadishu, the former teacher’s debut play about life at an inner-city comprehensive, does not disappoint.
All appears well with Joseph, an award-winning photo journalist, as he welcomes his adopted daughter Alex back from Cambridge at the end of her first year.
But family life at his cosy Hampstead semi takes a turn for the worse when a traumatic incident at university leads Alex to confront her past.
It soon emerges she was rescued from the killing fields of Rwanda as a baby, plucked by Joseph from among the lifeless bodies piled up in a church. Joseph’s celebrated photo of the scene, framing her wide-eyed innocence against a backdrop of a bloody massacre, helped make his name – but could it now be coming back to haunt him?
Alex has never questioned her past, concentrating on exams and caring for her late mother, but suddenly feels something tugging at her.
When it emerges she may not be the only survivor from the church, her desire to learn more about her roots grows even stronger.
Joseph, meanwhile, remains unable to confront the boxes of negatives from Vietnam to Afghanistan stacked in his attic as he prepares for a major retrospective.
As the true story of Alex’s rescue slowly emerges, she and her father are forced to re-evaluate their relationship, with devastating results.
The Witness displays many of the hallmarks that made Mogadishu such a striking debut.
The characters are drawn with the same warmth and generosity, and the dialogue is sparse but clear and never feels forced.
However, this is a more ambitious work, exploring issues of identity and responsibility as well as tracing the thin line between possession and love.
For all their closeness, there is always the suspicion Alex is simply a walking, talking memento of Joseph’s travels, the jewel of his years cataloguing global warfare.
When Simon arrives from Alex’s native Kigali and we watch their fledgling relationship grow, we are forced to question whether a lifetime of love can ever equal the blood bond that ties families. The small cast are all strong but David Ajala, as Simon, is particularly impressive, lighting up the second act.
It is a play packed with tension, pierced by the odd moment of humour, like the beautifully observed awkwardness when Joseph and Alex greet Simon for the first time.
Franzmann has crafted a gripping drama, cementing her reputation as a writer to watch.
The Witness runs until Saturday, June 30.