It’s hard to imagine a more emotionally-gruelling hour of theatre: three women held prisoner by an abusive patriarch finally free themselves from his clutches by shooting him in his bed, before being forced to relive decades of trauma by lawyers and psychiatrists. This excellent adaptation from community-based theatre company, The People’s Theatre, doesn’t shy away from the brutality of Shelagh Stephenson’s popular play, but they also endow it with tenderness and sensitivity.
An intelligent and restrained adaptation of Stephenson’s brilliant play.
Director Kath Frazer opts for a refreshingly unfussy staging, letting the performances speak for themselves. Anna Dobson’s Susan and Nicky White’s Janet hammer home the impact of decades of abuse. They’re emotionally shut off and trapped in a childlike mentality from Billy’s relentless, authoritarian rule, but also speak with a captivating bluntness.
Val Russell, as their mother, Mary, gives the show’s standout performance. Her intonation when walking in on her daughters’ patricide makes for the blackest of comedy, and her monologues on Mary’s early romance with Billy and the hellish marriage that followed are played with incredible delicacy. Janet and Susan are repeatedly asked by uncomprehending professionals why they’re not angry with their mother for doing nothing to stop or speak out against the abuse, and you want to scream at them for getting it so wrong – Russell’s every word shows the impossibility of intervention.
Billy’s (Gordon Russell) continued presence on stage initially feels like a distraction from the more compelling matter of his victims’ recovery, but soon his monologues add a new depth to the narrative as he too is revealed to be the victim of abusive parents. Russell is just as loathsome as you’d expect, but there’s also a real vulnerability in his reading of the character. His gesticulations and whining tone provide a marked contrast with his wife’s inherent gentleness and his daughter’s stillness and staccato replies – deep down they have a strength which Billy lacks.
Moments of renewed confidence in human nature come when the three female leads share centre stage, their collective strength fortified now they’re free of their tormentor. Frazer has captured a quiet and hesitant optimism at the heart of Stephenson’s play, a confidence that with Billy gone the cycle of abused becoming abusers will finally end. Though at times hard to watch, The People’s Theatre give an intelligent and restrained adaptation of Stephenson’s brilliant play.