Edward Bond's notorious 1965 play Saved is the most nightmarish thing I've ever seen on stage, and that's not even anything to do with its most infamous scene, in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram. If anything, the climax that ultraviolent scene gives the first act makes it more bearable - the second, lacking even that kind of catharsis, is even more oppressive. Most of the play's effect comes from its depiction of a trapped underclass which feels very resonant today - Bond has written a new foreword to the play that goes for David Cameron's jugular. Harry and Mary (Michael Feast and Susan Brown) are still married and still live together but haven't acknowledged each other's existence for decades. Their lodger Len (Morgan Watkins) used to go out with their daughter Pam (Lia Saville) and despite her protestations to the contrary, believes himself the father of the doomed baby; he remains in the house despite the tensions caused by his and Pam's having broken up. Fred (Calum Callaghan) is the more likely father but has no interest in the child or its mother.
It's the naturalism in their scenes in the shared living room that fosters this sense of despair, of a living hell, and I found the play to have an actual physical effect on me, I actually felt weighed down by it. The naturalism is there even in the baby-killing scene, which ramps up so slowly it becomes frighteningly believable. But it's the sense of dead-end lives that affected me the most. I think there was an element of bad timing here as well because, although it's years since I've gone into a real depression, in recent weeks I've sometimes come as close to one as I ever have when medicated; so I found myself in quite a dark place watching this. Some plays make you nauseous, this one didn't but I found myself almost wishing it would, as if I needed to be sick as a physical response to a play that gave me a physical reaction. 3hrs 5minutes is a very long time to keep up this level of intensity; it is occasionally lightened with humour, from black comedy (when Fred is arrested on suspicion of killing the baby, Pam assures him he'll be fine because "You've never been in trouble before. Just a few woundings") to an almost Carry On scene of sexual innuendo between Mary and Len. But these only provide temporary relief. Saved is one of the most extraordinarily accomplished pieces of theatre I've ever seen; but I wish I hadn't seen it.
Saved by Edward Bond is booking until the 5th of November at the Lyric Hammersmith.