THE KING’S HEAD THEATRE, ISLINGTON.
Bitter truths emerge in this uncompromising production, based in the confines of a Yorkshire women’s refuge.
Business is brisk in the women’s refuge run by Auntie Brenda in a Yorkshire village that still bears the scars of the Miners’ strike. In his bleak new play, Richard Cameron digs deep into the psyche of women who struggle to accept that abuse and violence is not their fault, and examines the vicious cruelty that barely pubescent boys can demonstrate when given half a chance.
Directed by Hull Truck’s founder Mike Bradwell, the fine cast draw us in swiftly to a shadowy world where women must hide and change their names to stay safe. Kindness and decency somehow remain, personified by Brenda, played with firm, motherly assurance by Suzan Sylvester. But even she has a guilty secret, shared by affable community police officer Jim, in a restrained and effective performance from James Hornsby.
Among a fine cast, Emma Hook stands out as the touchingly vulnerable Delie, who knows she isn’t clever but has feelings like anyone else. The exposition of her worst secret is one of the most excruciating points in the play, alongside young prostitute Roma (Holly Campbell) being battered in the confines of a caravan. Both deeply uncomfortable accounts leave a question over how far fully detailed, blow-by-blow descriptions of attacks almost become abusive in themselves.
Cameron hits home more effectively with Brenda’s disgusted realisation that a woman who’s been a prostitute is far less likely to be seen as a reliable witness in court than an violent man, be he pimp, pusher or wife-beater.
Music is the redeemer for Delie, as she karaoke-sings along the great, bittersweet Motown classics that act as a soundtrack for the show as well as a release for Brenda, Delie and kindly pawnbroker George (Geoff Leesley) in their stage act, The Flannelettes, with stylish arrangements and musical direction by Wendy Gadian.
The soulful 1960s lyrics of heartbreak and adoration work extremely effectively alongside the jagged emotions of refuge residents like former teacher Jean (Celia Robertson), and Roma (Holly Campbell), who still love their men, but have to make a choice between being with them or staying alive.
Mila Sanders’ design evokes the walled-in sense of security provided by the shelter, with its breeze-blocked windows and tired furniture. Her costumes also breathe weariness and poverty, making the glorious contrast of the Flannelettes’ stage gear even more dazzling.
The choppiness of some of the scenes is smoothed along by George Bach’s clever lighting design, and Alexandra Faye does excellent work with the sound which forms such an integral part of the show’s success.
Cameron and Bradwell have created a powerful and entirely uncompromising production which exposes cruelty so starkly that if music is to be the saving grace for these women – well, it’s a big ask.
Until June 6, 7pm and matinees.
King’s Head Theatre, Upper Street, Islington. Box office 02071 937 845