“Youth is wasted on the young”, at least according to George Bernard Shaw. Not so much wasted per se, but possibly underappreciated. The very concept of being young is stereotypically interconnected with naivety, optimism and a zest for life. Changes to the status quo, such as breaking up with a boyfriend, are magnified to feel as though they are the end of the world. Young love is a dangerous concept too, it can all too easily subsume the consciousness until nothing else matters. It burns bright but equally can burn out as fast. So what happens when young lovers rush headlong into a relationship, even a marriage, only to grow up and find those initial feelings have twisted into something darker, more sinister, but no less intense?
As a product of a broken home, Tom (Dan Stark) should have seen the signs coming. But early stages into a marriage and a life with Polly (Emily Pankhurst) leaves him feeling trapped. Unable to process and work through his issues in a mature fashion, he lashes out and thus another domestically violent and destructive partnership is born.
It creeps up on them at first – Tom’s possessive nature slowly convincing Polly that she needs him and no-one else. But when she looks in the mirror and sees a shell of her former self, no passion, no family, no purpose, she realises the trouble she is in. The split lip and the bruise to her eye are fairly apparent warning signs also. Scott James writes and directs Between A Man and A Woman, an insight into another domestic violence situation that perpetuates the cycle from generation to generation; a topic with much emotional potential, but in this case a production that does not delve deep enough to take its audience on the same journey.
In a show that deals with a very serious and often staged concept, standing out is all the more important. Whether it be by exceptional acting, a storyline that twists and turns or particularly powerful characters that draw in the audience, James’ writing and direction don’t seem to achieve the level needed here. The script doesn’t give the actors sufficient space to breathe or develop their characters, skipping instead between scenes in an effort to cram all aspects of domestic violence into one play and leaving no room for interpretation. By overlaying contrasting conversations, James highlights the polarised opinions and perspectives; flashbacks of happier times add weight to the inexorable decline of the two main characters into destitution and desperation. The movement pieces are another idea in which to drum up empathy, but these are slapdash and out of sync, an idea that overreaches the capability of the cast. The blocking of each scene also needs further consideration – too often key moments are insufficiently lighted or not given the focus they deserve.
The actors seem to relax into their parts as the play progresses. Polly (Pankhurst) in particular starts off shy and uncertain, but as her character’s confidence grows through the second half, so does hers. The most impactful moments are in the characters’ delivery of monologues, opinions about the events currently unfolding or recollections of parallel past experience. The simplicity in these scenes is the most powerful – actor, spotlight and audience, nothing else is needed. Younger brother Harry (Sam Stay) recalling how his brother is mimicking their abusive father’s behaviour; mother turned prostitute Bryony Maguire trying to get the cash needed for her child’s welfare; new to town Linda (Amy Spinks), horrified by a public display of violence ignored by all other passers-by because I involves a woman assaulting a man. The only performance that is consistently strong is that of the “other woman” Siobhan – Elinor Machen-Fortune manages to fall head over heels for the antagonist, blinded to his sizeable flaws and thinking she can change him. Naively optimistic youth at its best.
The topic of domestic violence is always a worthwhile conversation to have and as such Between A Man and A Woman contributes to an important ongoing discussion in raising awareness of an issue still prevalent in today’s (supposedly progressive) society. As a work in progress, there is promise in James’ production, but for every positive there are multiple kinks that need to be bashed out, none of them more so than lead performer Dan Stark. The key character Tom is completely underwhelming, utterly implausible and ineffectively emotionless. A shallow performance in a pivotal role.
Writer/ Director: Scott James
Choreographer: Cristian Valle
Cast: Dan Stark; Emily Pankhurst; Elinor Machen-Fortune; Samantha Jacobs; Julie Cloke; Tim Larkfield; Megan Fitzpatrick; Sam Stay; Sam Lockley; Bryony Maguire; Amy Spinks
Performed 25 – 27 Sept at Battersea Barge, London