A new production of Abi Zakarian's Fabric comes to London for a run at the Soho Theatre before it tours non-traditional theatre spaces in support of Solace Women's Aid. Daniel Perks reviews this one-woman show of sexual violence & trauma:

What does wrong look like?

Is it the bride in the perfect dress with a wedding night stain? Does it flicker across the piercing gaze of the unsupportive husband, the one who eats steak and skis and likes Jason Statham films, but who can’t deal with the ugliness of reality? Can it be caught on CCTV, where the grainy image is unfortunately open to interpretation?

In Abi Zakarian’s Fabric, wrong is in Leah’s desire to live an untenable fairy tale life. It’s in the men she meets, those searching for a submissive partner rather than a real woman with her own opinions. It’s the expectation from family to conform with tradition.

This wrong is graphic and intense. And it’s pervasive, sewn into the Fabric of our society.

Fabric Soho Theatre

Nancy Sullivan (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

As Leah, Nancy Sullivan dances around the stage as she dances around her words – feigning a breezy nonchalance but always with purpose, with presence. She moves from memory to memory (artfully depicted by Anna Reid’s fragmented design of isolated chairs) and speaks intimately with her audience. Jess Bernberg bathes the stage in an inviting orange glow, warming Sullivan as she spins a pleasant yarn of meeting her man at work, falling in love and getting married.

But her nervous chatter, her mannerisms, her sudden pauses before she lets thoughts verbally run away with themselves, they all hint at something more sinister hidden beneath the surface. Fabric is a knowing nod between women, shared experiences that need no further explanation – the attempt to impress the potential mother-in-law, the embarrassment at introducing your partner to your parents for the first time, the red dress that rides up at the bottom and down at the top. And the magical wedding night that doesn’t go the way you want. Or the drunken night out with the girls that shifts from shots and karaoke to fighting off advances in a disabled toilet.

Fabric Soho Theatre

Nancy Sullivan (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

And all the while the audience are in the room with Sullivan. She gives voice to Zakarian’s words, a narrative that seems so conversational and yet has subtle, complex subtext expertly woven into its structure. Oysters – swallow and smile. An arm over the shoulder – protective, or predatory. Potential wife material – an appraisal of worth that Leah hasn’t asked for but subconsciously craves. Zakarian understands the details of such stereotypes, using them to spin evocative imagery that Sullivan brings to life in her delivery. The description of the Maldives (a perfectly blue honeymoon destination), or of the real monster in Shelley’s Frankenstein, are just two examples of the pictures that Sullivan so vividly conjures forth through her performance.

It’s all a smokescreen of course. Leah convinces herself that she’s in love with the picture-perfect man and his picture-perfect life. She places herself firmly on the path that tradition dictates she tread – marriage, house, kids. Expectation, approval, pressure. All ways in which she can fail, measure herself against other women and come up short. The night out with the girls is the need to forget – drinks and songs become judgement and shame. Reid’s set shifts from happy touchpoints to obstacles that Leah can trip and stumble over. Hannah Hauer-King’s direction stops Leah from collapsing completely – it pauses at poignant points, forces Sullivan to evaluate and collect herself. The equivalent of a moment alone where you can cry before you fix your makeup and pretend that everything is hunky dory.

Fabric Soho Theatre

Nancy Sullivan (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

What does wrong look like? It’s in three stains. It’s porn and pain. Dealing with the shame, with no composure to regain. Because Zakarian’s Fabric proves that the rules are all the same in this artfully crafted game. And until there is a fundamental change, it will happen again and again.

★★★★☆

Fabric runs at Soho Theatre until 22 September 2018 before a London tour. For more information and tickets, visit the website here.