I am perhaps being a little picky, but isn’t a show called Between A Man and A Woman ever so slightly misleading when there are thirteen characters listed, most of whom, as it transpires, end up having some level of interaction with one another? Maybe that’s a deliberate point the show wishes to make.
After all, no couple or individual is truly independent. Although domestic violence is a topic that has been explored in plays before – as far back as Shakespeare’s Othello (1604) and even Euripides’ Medea (431 BC) – I found this one, set in today’s Britain, to be most intriguing. Polly (Emily Rose Pankhurst) is subjected to crimes against the person, although she finds solace in friends and relatives rather than any sort of external body, be it the police or a woman’s refuge.
What the play asserts, with varying degrees of confidence as it tries to balance out positing a hypothesis and not being too simplistic about a complex issue, is that the sins of the previous generation are visited upon the current one. Tom (Millin Thomas) is not the usual stereotypical perpetrator of violence as tends to be depicted on stage – the beatings are sporadic rather than continuous, and, as the show uncovers layer by layer, stem from a lousy and traumatic childhood, the details of which would be too much of a spoiler if recounted here. With one notable exception, there are profuse apologies and expressions of regret that immediately follow. He does, in a way, see the light, but so does Polly – so, like Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) – Polly ends up walking away from her husband. And like that other play, as the curtain comes down shortly after that point, whether there is scope for this couple to ever be reunited is something to be mused on by the audience.
A love triangle is established remarkably early, which, given the number of musicals with love triangles, made me initially think this play may work just as well as a musical, or at least a play with musical numbers. By this point, however, the darker aspects of the show had not yet been uncovered, but even so, it is not an idea to be entirely disregarded, given the interludes with music and choreographed movement (I wouldn’t exactly call it dancing) that the show as it stands already has.
I found myself amused by Anna (Sophia Handscomb); I get the feeling this may not have been the play’s intention. This is such an engrossing story, with excellent character development, that the sudden quoting of statistics about how many victims of domestic abuse die at the hands of their abusers (without even stating the source of this information: the phrase ‘eight out of ten statistics are completely made up’ comes to mind), depersonalises the narrative unnecessarily. After telling Polly she must not let anyone order her about, Anna aggressively tells Polly what to do before dragging her away. Irony personified.
As I say, this sort of storyline has, at surface level, been explored before – and will, no doubt, be explored again. This play didn’t come across as predictable at all, though. All characters remain on stage throughout. This took some getting used to, and some improvement to the lighting could give more emphasis on the characters actually engaged in dialogue at any one time. At times, particularly early on, it looked like two or three characters were in conversation whilst the others were simultaneously attempting the ‘Mannequin Challenge’. Having everyone visible at least helped enormously with scene changes – not that there was much space for too many props on a relatively small performance space with ten people on it.
Thomas does so credibly and incredibly well in the lead role, convincingly sympathetic and tender when he’s in a good mood, and palpably brutal in the heat of the moment. Of the supporting roles, the standouts were from Samantha Jacobs’ Shelly, a refreshingly forthright woman that almost makes her sister Siobhan (Laura Janes) seem like a blushing character out of a Jane Austen novel; and from Sam Stay’s Harry, a soft-spoken but sincere man who has had the wind knocked out of his sails and turned out a very different person to his brother.
Sometimes intense, sometimes poignant, always gripping.
Review by Chris Omaweng
To the outside world, Polly and Tom seem to represent the normal married couple; successful, loving and happy. But behind closed doors, not all is what it seems. Polly’s family and friends are constantly worried for her wellbeing and safety; claiming she has changed from the person she once was. This new and harrowing drama focuses on the taboo subject of domestic violence and questions as to whether we can fully know what goes on behind closed doors and within the sanctity of marriage.
Between a Man and a Woman
4th to 14th January 2017
Bread and Roses Theatre