“a quite remarkable feat of theatre making all round”
If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change?
It is an over familiar and well-worn question. The subject of many late-night rambling discussions, and a theme in many more dramas on stage and on screen. So, another play in which the characters frequently ask one another the question suggests a claggy hour and a half of yawn stifling.
But don’t be fooled. Safaa Benson-Effiom’s debut full-length play approaches the question in a wonderfully fresh and deeply harrowing way. Partly because, although a leitmotif, it is secondary to the narrative; unanswered and pushed into a corner by the distressing circumstances and events that spearhead the action. “Til Death Do Us Part” is essentially a drama about love and relationships and what happens when they fracture. We don’t always have the language to express the pain and grief that is felt.
After fifteen years of marriage, Daniel (Richard Holt) and Sylvia (Danielle Kassaraté) find themselves simultaneously drifting apart and trapped together. They are a fairly normal couple, with fairly normal lives and a teenage son (Jude Chinchen) from whom they think the darker undercurrents of their marriage are hidden. When faced with their worst nightmare the couple are forced to confront the years of unspoken resentment. Unarmed, except for the rapier-like honesty which cuts to the surface, they fight their common demons alone.
Benson-Effiom plays with time. We are, at once, in the present and the past but the text yields no confusion under Justina Kehinde’s extremely slick direction that creates a world where memories and ghosts are one and the same. Tom Foskett-Barnes’ ominously evocative sound design lends touches of the supernatural, although we are still firmly rooted in reality. It is a quite remarkable feat of theatre making all round.
But at the forefront are the performances. Holt and Kassaraté dress their characters in more layers than you can count. Both of them unpredictable, they seize the danger inherent in Benson-Effiom’s writing. The portrayal of their heartache, loss, failure, regrets and fears are as blistering as the sparks that fly between them. Chinchen’s Andrew is equally mesmerising as the schoolboy, all smiles and effervescence concealing invisible cracks, playing his parents off each other right through to the tragic climax. In a novel twist the climax precedes the build-up, which paradoxically intensifies each.
The exploration of grief and blame is profound but not heavy handed. A short line of dialogue is enough to convey a decade of emotion. We live in a society where platitudes abound that try to make sense of the chaos that extreme loss wreaks. This insightful production makes them flesh. A riveting, must-see ninety minutes of theatre. If you can see beyond the trigger warnings, Safaa Benson-Effiom is a name to look out for.
“The comedy is frequent, and welcome. Because there are things here that are painful to listen to”
It is Monday evening. I am going to see Fitter at Soho Theatre, but I am killing time in a bookshop. I pick up a book about Dorothy Parker and flip through the pages. The first one I stop to read contains the poem “Symptom Recital”. And, all the way from 1936, Dorothy Parker strikes a chord when she says:
‘I shudder at the thought of men.’
Mary Higgins and Ell Potter also shudder at the thought of men. Their previous show, Hotter – a celebration/exploration/reclamation of bodies – was based on interviews with just about everyone except cis men. Obviously. Why would they want to speak to men? Beside, men don’t need a show.
Or maybe they do.
‘Maybe everyone needs a show.’
Part verbatim theatre, part performance art and part confession, Fitter is based on interviews with cis, trans, and masculine presenting men of all ages. Higgins and Potter ask them about their lives (emotional and physical), and use their answers to create a show that challenges popular misconceptions.
The audience’s expectations are dismantled at the same time as the performers’. Higgins and Potter know what the answer to their first question – ‘Would you rather be hard or soft?’ – will be. Until it ends up being the opposite. Emotional men don’t exist. Until they’re spotted crying at X Factor. It’s a well-known fact that men just want sex. Until they shock us by celebrating the emotional connection between themselves and their sexual partner.
Higgins and Potter lip-sync loving words between partners, recreate fights between pre-teen boys and play everyone from eight year olds to middle aged football fans. They also do a dance routine about douching. Which is one of the many gloriously silly moments that make this show so fun, in spite of its seriousness. Keeping the stage clear of set (with the exception of a small but significant green box), they fill it instead with energetic musical interludes that both add to the narrative and provide comic relief.
The comedy is frequent, and welcome. Because there are things here that are painful to listen to. Not just because they are beautifully written, not just because they are sensitively performed – but because they are true. Yes, some men are trash. Some are beyond trash, straying into “irredeemable” territory. But others are sensitive and thoughtful and kind. And they deserve to be uplifted. Fitter does not shy away from interrogating either. Instead, it celebrates the vulnerability of human life, the joys and fears of the individual, and the experience of coming together to watch two women redefine the male stereotype (and draw beards on each other).
On the bus home, I re-read “Symptom Recital”. It turns out that the relatable line is actually a rhyming couplet, paired with:
‘I’m due to fall in love again.’
I don’t think Fitter will make you fall in love with men. But it might help you understand them. And that, in and of itself, is a very valuable thing.