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Smack That (A Conversation) at Ovalhouse | Review

Rhiannon Faith -SmackThat (a conversation) © Foteini
Rhiannon Faith -SmackThat (a conversation) © Foteini

There are several narratives in Smack That (a conversation) which are told through various methods, not all of them involving words. An ‘Audience Care & Trigger Warning’ tells patrons that the performance contains “themes of an adult nature, including sexual violence and domestic abuse”, and there is an understanding that should anyone feel the need to do so, it is possible to simply walk away from the show for a while and go across into a ‘chill-out space’. Members of the audience assume the roles of guests at a party where the hosts are all called Beverly, and so is everyone else. To distinguish one ‘audience’ (or guest) Beverly from another, everyone is given a nickname – I was ‘Check Bev’, on account of my checked shirt.

This, then, is Abigail’s Party on another level: one way of interpreting events in that other play is that Abigail becomes a victim of a sexual predator. (That I happen to be familiar with Abigail’s Party makes me, according to the on-stage Beverlys, “as old as f—k”.) The house party backdrop is used to introduce audience participation (entirely voluntary, I hasten to add) in the form of party games, some of which came across as providing breathing space in between the harrowing accounts and recollections of incidents that are highly memorable to say the least. A game of ‘pass the parcel’ involved rounds where audience members unravelled a layer to find some sweets and statistical information about how prevalent domestic abuse is. Police in the UK receive a call regarding domestic violence once every thirty-six seconds. On average, a woman is assaulted 35 times before she receives help. The annual cost of domestic violence to the UK is £66 billion. And so on.

Perhaps the most interesting (well, to me, anyway) game was ‘Never Have I Ever…’ in which miscellaneous scenarios are posited, ranging from the trivial to the downright horrifying. As the cast is keen to point out at the start, there are of course male victims of domestic abuse and violence, but this particular production focuses on the experiences of women. But the men in the audience got their opportunity to be heard – and as different situations were called out, it took some guts on anyone’s part to stand up in front of everyone else. Yes, they’ve spilled red wine on the carpet. But then, yes, they’ve been grabbed by the throat. Yes, they’ve been called derogatory names and made to feel they are inadequate on every level. Yes, they’ve been forced to do things against their will. This mass confessional session started to take on the air of a non-religious revival meeting.

Whatever the production says about nobody in the audience being pressurised to do anything they don’t want to, there’s no getting around the fact that this isn’t the show for you if you like all of the action to take place firmly and exclusively behind the fourth wall. There are moments of physical theatre, including one which begins with a pleasant enough question, “Would you like some cake?” – it quickly descends into strong language and a Beverly having her head repeatedly forced into the cake – by another Beverly.

One got the sense that, despite reassurances that there would be no holding back, full re-enactments of the sort of injuries these women, and women like them, sustained, would have been in very bad taste indeed. But there is some good news. These are stories about what happened – past tense. An earlier Tory-bashing scene (for that is what it is) is counter-balanced by an epilogue that insists, quite rightly, that help is out there for those that need it. The sudden shifting between the happiness and joy of the house party to the brutality of abusive scenarios may be rather disorienting, but it is indicative of the manner of unhealthy relationships – sweetness and light abruptly followed by horrific violence. An emotionally intelligent, conscientious and affirmative production that provides a platform for these stories of triumph over adversity to be heard.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Beverly is having a party and you are her guest. Shameless and subversive dance theatre about human resilience, survival and how we care for one another.

RHIANNON FAITH PRESENTS
Smack That
(A Conversation)
Wed 27 Feb – Sat 16 Mar 2019
https://www.ovalhouse.com

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