It was with some trepidation that I attended Mercury Theatre Wales’ production of 35. Firstly, the description as ‘immersive’ always sets alarm bells ringing for me, and secondly, that the show shone a spotlight on the issues of domestic violence and abuse; this latter concern was for both how effectively the matter would be dealt with and also how uncomfortable I would be watching it.
On entering the Studio, which was adequately, if minimally, set as a coffee morning at a social club we were greeted by the organiser of the coffee morning who chatted to different audience members about different topics, and who even made sure I had a plate of bourbon biscuits to be getting on with. To my relief, except for some minor interactions (“’ere, she’s sat in my seat” to one audience member) that was pretty much the extent of audience participation (at least until the end – I’ll get to that). So, fear number one assuaged.
The overall premise – 5 women meet for a coffee morning with the added bonus that this week there’s going to be a dance instructor turning up – is, to be fair, flimsy; that is not intended as a major criticism. It is the content of the conversations, the developing relationships and revelations, the journeys and battling of assumptions, and the exposure and exploration of the subject matter which hold the piece together.
All six characters bought something different to the table and the actors succeeded in portraying archetypes rather than caricatures. Each story told reflected in the behaviours of the character and the face they presented to the audience; the parallel is clear to see – the faces and behaviours of women might disguise that something darker hides behind closed doors. We were given the brash, outwardly tough, beaten “mother of four by three different fathers”, played by Francesca Goodridge; the isolated and mentally abused pensioner played in an almost idyllic and detached way by Olwen Rees; the broken and fragile victim of marital sexual abuse, played by Bethan Morgan; the constantly harassed victim of mental torture played by Cler Stephens; and the withdrawn and timorous victim of familial abuse played by Elena Thomas. Finally, we were told the brutal abuse of Polly Kilpatrick’s character delivered deadpan, as if recounting something mundane. The scope of abuse covered was clearly extensive – that all were covered in so short a time meant that some understanding of each was achieved, but equally you weren’t overwhelmed by too much detail.
I appreciated that it was presented from an all-female perspective. While male domestic abuse is an issue, and does need exposure, including a male perspective might have blunted the message of this production. There was no undertone of “All Men are Bastards!” – it would have been easy to do but thankfully there was no such generalisation. Equally, while all the women were victims, at no point was it suggested that it was their fault which is an important distinction.
There were some interesting production choices, and I’m not sure all of them worked. I can understand the use of a microphone when singing but in such a small venue thought it unnecessary for dialogue, the use of netting in one scene left me utterly baffled, and there was the occasional sense of ticking artistic boxes – repeating whispers, collective chanting, and so on. I enjoyed the songs – the rewording of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was unexpected and brutal – and the individual, yet unified, dance to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” provided an overwhelming pick’n’mix of desolation where it was impossible to keep your eyes on just one actor as your eyes were drawn to the tragedies unfolding all around. I suspect that might have been the point.
The end of the show saw the cast inviting members of the audience up to dance with them – and it’s very difficult to turn down a bleeding, battered woman. But the dancing, and the continuation of the coffee morning, allowed the audience to continue the conversations as the production intended it to.
It was an interesting evening, if not strictly speaking enjoyable – the subject matter precluded that, even if some comedy was included. The performances were all excellent and while I might have issues around some of the production, I came away from the evening more positively than I imagined I would.
Main image: Olwen Rees, image by Jorge Lizalde
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