Brutal Cessation

Described by its creator as a two-actor play of “a relationship rotting” and a manifestation of domestic “purgatory”, it quite quickly becomes apparent through this tense and engrossing performance that this is an understatement.

This play will keep you gripped and attentive throughout.

The two actors – Alan Mahon and Lydia Larson – play out a number of emblematic scenes, making full use of the empty stage, to document the deterioration of an already unnerving relationship. Threats of violence, and paranoia about terminal illnesses and abandonment loom at the centres of the interactions, but never quite become all-consuming. Neither partner seems able to take the decisive action of breaking off forever.

This is the kind of relationship that could only really exist on stage, partly because it is more warped than most relationships are capable of becoming, but more importantly because it is a relationship that exists within theatrical wordplay. This is meant as a partial criticism of this new writing by Milly Thomas, because at times the power plays are too obviously a performance—like demanding your partner to lick a bleeding leg wound—but this criticism only goes so far. The play, in sum, actually derives a lot of its insight from its distancing from the world outside. It is as if the play wants to quickly get over the obvious fact that it is a play, emphasised by the presence on stage of the simple box of props, and jump straight into the more juicy, messy questions of what it is that it can tell us about people.

There is also the sense throughout that the world is both an ever-present threat to them both, and entirely non-existent. This is a source of power for the narrative, as it seems guaranteed that, if the threat of violence were to spill over into actuality, then the outside would come crashing in on them—something they are both unified in fearing unconditionally. It may also be the point that both characters are talking and talking, driven on by the necessary rhythm of a theatre script, and yet they never quite reach each other. In fact, at one point in the play, Mahon states: “We always talk”, only to be answered, as if collectively: “Yes, but not about what is important.” It might be the only moment when you feel they are genuinely on the same page.

Larson provides a captivating performance throughout, exemplifying delusion yet tenderness at the same time. It is a fascinating result of this delivery that, even if it is Mahon’s character that comes closer to enacting real violence, we feel more uncomfortable with Larson’s reactions of hurt or recoil in this moment, as if the past threats she has made justify some kind of sadistic male revenge. This brings to the fore society’s gendered notions of victimhood, and leaves plenty to think about. Even though the actors swap and repeat lines later in the play, there is no simple symmetry or endpoint, as everything that has happened so far shapes the tone and delivery of what comes after. This play will keep you gripped and attentive throughout. 

Reviews by Jonathan Mayo

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The Blurb

'I have fantasies... I lead you to a table… and I hurt you.' A relationship. A relationship rotting. Purgatory. Is having no reason to stay a reason to leave? At what point does the abuser become the abused? And why aren't we more afraid of women? Two actors, one couple, swapping roles. A savage new play by Milly Thomas (Clique BBC3, Clickbait and A First World Problem, Theatre503) exploring violence in relationships, our expectations of gender and what happens when we're no longer in love but refuse to let go.