Torn

In a charged, fraught episode – one of many in Torn – actor Roger Griffiths shouts that this is the last chance to ‘salvage the wreckage’ of a family. Torn circumnavigates the intricacies of a toxic, fractured unit. Estranged fathers, warring sisters and rejected daughters all seek closure from the pain and squalor of a shared past. But when cycles of blame and shame repeat, and children bear the sins of their parents, what does family mean and can one be loyal to it?

The cast worked exceptionally well as an ensemble and individual characterisation was nuanced.

The audience is immediately plunged in a strangely dispassionate scene of ironic reconciliation. This might be the first time that members of the family have been together in one room for many years but this is no touching reunion. As Angell (Adelle Leonce) locks the door of the stark, bare space, there is a feeling of nervous anticipation. She threatens to uproot a cancerous legacy of neglect passed from parent to child. She is determined to expose the coercion and abuse that defined her childhood. But when overlapping narratives diverge and the insidious past infiltrates the present, no one has the authority to objectively recount what really happened.

There are no introductions or time provided for the audience to acclimatise. The cast speak over one other, cut each other off and rebut criticism before it has even been presented. Every interchange hums with an undercurrent of self-preservation. One by one, each figure fails Angell, refusing to voice the awful, incomprehensible possibility that she is telling the truth. In denying her experience, they protect themselves from their complicity and ultimate accountability. Attempting vainly to fit the pieces of this puzzle together is somewhat disorientating for the audience and there is an initial sense of exclusivity which is discomforting.

However, it is precisely this lack of introduction, the expectation that a viewer will unpick the inter-generational connections, which makes the dialogue stimulating and the drama authentic. Those onstage know one another intimately, have grown up and grown apart together, and to provide context would be jarring. Similarly, while theatre in the round can be problematic –at times it was anguishing watching the back of an actor’s head as revelations were spilled – the format created a sense of outsiders looking into something precious and private.

The cast worked exceptionally well as an ensemble and individual characterisation was nuanced. At the heart of the rubble, Adelle Leonce performed her part exquisitely. Magnetic, explosive and volatile, one moment blazing with righteous anger, the next crumpled and broken, she married seemingly irreconcilable elements of the role with aplomb.

Nathaniel Martello-White is a sharp writer with a good ear for the cadences and peculiarities of families. But perhaps Torn takes on too much. So much of the drama and inequality experienced stems from the precise skin colour of each individual. Opportunity and love are funnelled almost exclusively toward the lighter skinned. However, there is a strange and perhaps unnecessary allusion made to the legacy of slavery equating child abuse to the treatment of ‘house niggers’. Perhaps this is meant to lift the play from the personal to a universal platform, but instead it felt unnecessary and clumsy, reducing Steve to a one-dimensional, nausea-inducing abuser. It gave too easy an answer to a complicated point.

It is clear that this family cannot be ‘salvaged’. There is no repentance, nor retribution served. Angell was failed one hundred times in one hundred small but significant ways. A mother herself now, the malevolent threat of her inherited legacy looms large. The audience is left wondering the ways that Angell’s own children will be left unprotected from the past as it bleeds, irrevocably, into the future. 

Reviews by Cal Kenny

Dorfman - National Theatre

Barber Shop Chronicles

★★★★★
Southbank Centre

Bianco

★★★
Trafalgar Studio 1 / Trafalgar Studios

Buried Child

★★★
Southwark Playhouse

Side Show

★★
The Royal Court Theatre

Torn

★★★
Soho Theatre

Two Man Show

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

“‘Cos whether you like it or not, some way, everything that went before, is fed to them who come after.”

Generations of secrets have broken the Brook family.

Siblings split-up, traded-off, treated differently.

Angel, the youngest, has called a family meeting to sift through the wreckage. And she’s not leaving until they’ve confronted the truth about how and why her family failed her.

“Where you standing? I say where you standing on this? You think it happened or you don’t think it happened?”