Tom (Millin Thomas) and Polly (Jasmin Gleeson) look like they’re leading the perfect married life. However, her sister Tammy (Charlotte E Tayler) and all Polly’s friends know there is something going on between the two: Tom has been smothering Polly too much for their taste, and she’s started to display an array of suspicious bruises. It turns out that Tom is hiding more than his affair with young Siobhan. Written by Scott James, Between a Man and a Woman is intense and heartbreaking, even though it’s in need of some tweaks.

It takes a good deal of risk-taking to deal with domestic violence like James does in his play. His direct and straightforward attitude brings a refreshing vibe to the theme, which can make writers tiptoe around at times. Polly (Gleeson) is thrown around like a rag doll by Tom (Thomas) and his mercurial & unpredictable behaviour keeps his wife on the edge. Thomas is disturbing and truly frightening as the husband, his physicality and palpable stage presence towering over the other actors even when his character breaks down through a stunning and jarring acting journey. His gut-wrenching performance is raw and open as he wears the character’s wounds appropriately, his defiance and sharp meanness stirring a response in the audience. He is a broken man, and even though it might seem as if James wants to forgive him now and then, he swerves right back on track and shows the monster he has become with depth and wiseness.

“Mothers don’t write. Wives don’t write. They look after their children.” he reproaches to Polly (Gleeson) right before ripping her writings. Tom’s belittlements and discouragements hit her as hard, as do his blows and slaps, and his brainwashing personality has been capable of tearing her away from her family and locking her in his bubble of violence. Gleeson’s portrayal of Polly is strong in her frailty, she becomes smaller and self-conscious, grasping her own hands and staring at the floor while the truth is placed vividly in front of (and around) her eyes. She loves Tom unconditionally even after he brutally rapes her on the floor. “When I realised I couldn’t stop you it felt like someone grabbed my spine and cracked it.” she says referring to the shocking episode, but it feels as though she is alluding to the moment the abuse started. She tries to stand by him, at the cost of going on antidepressants (and hiding it). A mild and subdued woman, it is agonising to see her battered around.

The playwright explores the hereditary quality of violence through Tom and his little brother Harry’s (Duncan Mitchell) past as sons of an abusive man. While the elder never knew kindness from their father, Harry’s sexual abuse gained him attention and presents, which made Tom jealous and resentful. Mitchell navigates those flashbacks, where he momentarily plays his character as a child, without sounding and looking too out of place. The difference between the two brothers is striking: Tom has become exactly like his father (which both Polly and Harry bring to his attention in a scarring “You could never be a father, you’re just like yours!”) while Harry is still shell-shocked.

James forsakes frills to tell it how it is and his sincerity and boldness pay off in the end. Removing a few clichés, especially direction-wise, might be what the production needs to soar. Furthermore, even though it is meant to legitimise and give solid ground to the show, concluding with statistics regarding abuse and domestic violence forcefully drag the spectator away and depersonalise the story, as they shift the focus from experience to awareness.

A poignant and unsettling piece of work, Scott’s Between a Man and a Woman is certainly food for thought, and with some adjustments could truly make its mark on the scene. Written with an awareness that voluntarily lacks tact, it could act like the start of a more profound reflection on violence and abuse.

 

★★★☆☆

Between A Man And A Woman played the Lion and Unicorn until 12 August 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets for other shows in the Camden Fringe, click here.