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The Woods review – motherhood cuts deep for Lesley Sharp in grim fairytale

An exquisite woodland shrouds the Royal Court theatre. Naomi Dawson’s design shelters Robert Alan Evans’ fairytale of loss. Under treetops and over wood chips, a quartet of damaged figures skulk.

Woman (Lesley Sharp) has long been lost in the woods. She uncovers Boy (Finn Bennett) in the snow and nurses him back to health beneath a rusting scaffold den. In her beautiful delusions, he is hers. Stalking through the trees is a Wolf (Tom Mothersdale) in a Kill Bill tracksuit. Wolf’s abuse traps Woman within her own twisted bedtime story, thwarting her attempts at escape with comic guises. He wraps himself around her and begs her to do the voice, mama. In a kitchen, nestled high in the treetops, a baby monitor blinks cruelly.

Evans’ script is elusive and sometimes opaque, his characters speaking into voids. Sharp and Mothersdale’s performances are magnificent, their accents tumbling from an American drawl to prosaic English as reality pierces illusion. Charles Furness is briefly brutal in an interlude as Kid, while a haunted Bennett spends the majority of his performance comatose.

The play’s aesthetics are stunning but its metaphors are heavy-handed. Dawson’s forest is littered with childhood debris; toys dug up and snagged on branches. Tom Gibbons’ soundscape cracks momentously in blackouts. When their den sets alight, Woman and Boy cradle together against the flames, no environment outside of her body safe enough for her child.

Lucy Morrison’s production is a heady portrait of a mother’s emotional trauma but one that pours its focus into atmosphere and image. Woman exists entirely in relation to her child. When she loses him, there is nothing left of her.

At Royal Court, London, until 20 October.