Joy Espiritu (Maxene Eigenmann), a Filipina single mother living visa-less in London, has a daily struggle to survive – working cleaning jobs for clueless rich people, staying in handy empty homes while her employers are on holiday, saving up to pay a dodgy guy to secure a right to remain and most of all coping with her young, rebellious, dissatisfied daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla). A lifeline comes when she lucks into a dream offer from barrister Katherine (Leanne Best) of a thousand pounds cash a week to housekeep in an old dark mansion … with the catch being that she also has to help care for Katherine’s bedridden, cancer-stricken uncle Nigel (David Hayman).
As is deftly established but never raised in the dialogue because Brits don’t think to ask about the background of their cleaners, Joy has some medical qualifications and – when left in the house with Nigel for a few days – starts to wonder whether his daily meds aren’t killing him or at least keeping him in a chemically-induced coma. Also, a hidden stash of unsent letters in Tagalog – which the writer presumes were posted – and a strange discovery in the attic hint that Nigel had connections with Joy’s homeland before he became ill. Other gothic elements surface: an unaware sleepwalking, the forced confinement of an inconvenient female relative in a madhouse, poisons administered drop by drop (in parallel with Grace’s favourite trick of putting strawberry jam in the ketchup or chili powder in the coffee percolator), and dreams which might be real and realities written off as tall tales. Even some of the realistic elements – Grace has to sleep in a wardrobe because Joy hasn’t told Katherine she’s bringing her daughter to the house – feel like leftovers from 19th century melodrama.
For the most part, Raging Grace consists of four characters in an old dark house – and one of them is in a coma – and it builds a sense of entrapment and menace, with the infallible suspense device of characters in hiding who find that their bolt-holes are more dangerous than the outside world they’ve fled. You wouldn’t cast a quality actor like Hayman in a sleeping part, so it’s no surprise Nigel eventually wakes up – infinitely complicating the story as presumptions of who’s wickedly plotting are turned over, with the invalid exerting a reptilian charm which will keep the audience guessing … a speech about cock-fighting, which Nigel enjoyed as a boy in the Philippines, has a chill, but a few later well-chosen words which exacerbate a rift between mother and daughter demonstrate it’s possible to be frightening just with a line of dialogue. Eigenmann, looking down and forgetting not to call her employer ‘ma’am’, and Boadilla, pixie-ish with a streak of infuriating mischief, are exceptional. Written and directed by Paris Zarcilla.