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Review of Open Clasp’s Rattle Snake at Soho Theatre

Open Clasp Snake
Open Clasp Snake

Coercive controlling domestic abuse may not sound like a good subject to turn into an entertainment for the masses. When the play is based on real life stories from women that have suffered and survived such abuse, then it starts to sound even less like something I would want to see. However, being nothing if not professional, I went along to the Soho Theatre to see Open Clasp’s production Rattle Snake.

In a cube-shaped stage, two women sit at a dinner table facing each other. They don’t speak to each other but they are interacting by carrying out a set of what looks like ritual moves with the glasses on the table. As they get faster, one of the women makes a mistake and the two freeze, looking around in fear, waiting for something or someone to react to the mistake. When nothing happens, the two relax slightly, then start again. After a while, they stand and talk to the audience. We learn that they are Suzy (Christina Berriman Dawson) and Jen (Eilidh Talman) and they both have one thing in common – James. They talk about how they met James, and what he was like when they first got together. Their stories are very similar, indeed at times, exactly the same, as their relationship with James progresses. As they let him into their lives, he starts to take over – subtly at first, but then bit by bit, chipping away at Suzy and Jen, taking them away from the world and making him, and his behaviour, the centre of their existence, and using every means at his disposal to ensure that never changes.

Hold my hands up time here. I may have been guilty of a touch of premature evaluation in my approach to Rattle Snake. In my mind, I had an idea that it was going to be an hour of woe, with harrowing stories one after another of women and the men who abused them. In reality, writer Catrina McHugh has crafted a fascinating tale that, rather as James does with the women he meets, draws you in gently and then takes you along a road that gets more horrific as it goes along. Even sitting in the audience, knowing the subject matter, I could see how two nice, intelligent women like Suzy and Jen could get hooked by James. I even, in some ways began to understand why Suzy stuck it out for as long as she did. This is a really powerful play made even more poignant by the fact it is based on real events that are still taking place every day outside in the real world.

Full credit has to go to Christina Berriman Dawson and Eilidh Talman for two very strong performances, not only as Suzy and Jen but also, at times, as an embodiment of James himself. Both actors really threw themselves physically and emotionally into their roles so convincingly that, as sometimes happens, I almost forgot they were actors. Director Charlotte Bennett and Movement Director Robby Graham from South Paw Dance Company moves the actors well within the confined space of the three-dimensional cube – set design by Anna Reid – that is their world. And there is a lovely flow to the movement between them as they – whether as the women or James – seem to dance around each other and their ‘home’. The dinner table was, I think, an inspired idea. I loved the way it was constantly being fiddled with and adjusted – at times almost absent-mindedly – by the actors in an almost desperate attempt to make sure it was perfect.

Rattle Snake is a surprising play in so many ways. It tackled what could have been an extremely heavy and depressing subject, in an entertaining and informative way that had me totally hooked all the way through. I think the highest praise I can give is that Open Clasp Theatre Company managed to do in roughly an hour, what The Archers – with its Rob and Helen story – took nearly three years to do. Whilst there are not a lot of laughs in the show, it is an amazing and highly heartbreaking production. As an awareness-raising piece of work and as a play in its own right, Rattle Snake is pretty much faultless and, as it wends its way around the UK on tour, I would really recommend everyone takes an hour out their day and goes to see it.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

Rattle Snake is based on the real life stories of women who have faced and survived coercive controlling domestic abuse. On Tuesday, BBC Woman’s Hour discussed the effect of coercive control on children. Earlier this month, the government launched a public consultation into domestic abuse. And yet prosecutions since the law changed in 2015, making coercive control in relationships a crime, remain low, as highlighted in the Observer earlier this month.

Coinciding with this change in UK law , Rattle Snake was originally developed as part of a training programme for frontline police officers in Durham. As with Key Change which was created with women serving at HMP Low Newton in County Durham, it was inspired by the women who put their trust in Open Clasp to tell their stories.

Rattle Snake
An Open Clasp and Live Theatre co-production
Written by Catrina McHugh MBE
Directed by Charlotte Bennett
Age Recommendation: 15+
A story with no ending; a chance meeting with one man changes the lives of two women forever.
Now they both live trying to predict the unpredictable. Rattle Snake is an epic tale, based on real

life stories of women who have faced and survived coercive controlling domestic abuse. Recom-
mended age: 15+

Tour dates include:
8-19 May, Soho Theatre, London
29 May, Theatre Deli, Sheffield
30 May, Gala Theatre, Durham
1 June, Oldham Library
5-9 June, Live Theatre, Newcastle
Plus community venues
www.openclasp.org.uk

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