THEATRE REVIEW: Torn Apart (Dissolution), Hope Theatre

running until 22 July

Monty Leigh as Erica (photo: Scott Rylander)

Squeezed into the intimate theatre space above the Hope and Anchor on Upper Street, Szymon Ruszczewski’s set for Torn Apart resembles a birdcage, as white string surrounds the playing area in a web-like structure. But is the cage keeping the couples safe or trapping them?

The relationships in this piece have a similar conflict: at times they are liberating, at others stifling; they open doors to new passions and new world, but they are all heading towards irrevocable ends. Across the decades, three couples in three bedrooms pursue lustful encounters that flourish into close relationships, that crumble into heartbreak. BJ McNeill’s play presents sex in all its messy, sweaty glory, and the intimacy of the space means the audience really feels like a fly on the wall – almost like a voyeur as the characters abandon themselves to desire.

Torn Apart is at its strongest when the script captures the authenticity of conversation, swinging from bickering to laughter, from banality to grand passion as easily as flicking a switch. The scenes between Elliott (Elliott Rogers) and Casey (Tina Baston) feel the most truthful, emanating the rawness of love and desperation as the future slips out of their grasp. Rogers and Baston have fantastic energy, filling the small space with an irrepressible zest for life that belies Elliott’s deep-rooted pain from his childhood, and the inevitable separation that is to come in the form of Casey’s expiring visa – one of the many instances throughout the play where circumstance and fate play against our couples.

McNeill’s script is less successful when it tries to capture too many big ideas in one conversation, as happens in the case of Polish student Alina and her American lover, united in West Germany in the early 1980s. It becomes apparent that their story – a secret pregnancy, a violent separation – is the catalyst for the fates of the other two couples, but the dialogue becomes heavy-handed at times. Despite the best efforts of Charlie Allen and Nastazja Somers, they struggle to give us rounded characterisations when weighed down by some lines loaded with exposition.

Casey (Tina Baston) and Elliott (Elliott Rogers) (photo: Scott Rylander)

The three stories are woven together deftly and their connections begin to unravel as each couple discusses their family histories, with a symbolic pack of cards representing the role of chance and fate in this saga. Completing the tangled family tree is Holly, who after the breakdown of her ‘perfect’ white picket-fence marriage has at last found unexpected happiness with Erica – but while she struggles to tell the truth to her daughter Annabel, Erica has a darker secret to keep. The spectre of death threatens to come in between the couple, as Holly’s fussing and desperation to find a cure begins to smother Erica’s longing for a normal life. Sarah Hastings and Monty Leigh both give wonderful performances in the most complex relationship in the peace, and the one that plucks at the heartstrings the most.

Brief interludes of movement and dance feel incongruous and ill-contrived, once again a way of making a point that feels too heavy-handed. But the use of music is effective, the woven cage at times resembling a harp as the cast pluck at the strings. At others they break through the gaps, reaching out towards their audience and breaking out of the cage-like space. This demonstrates how with more lightness of touch, the play’s naturalism and symbolism can combine to create beautiful moments of passion and unapologetic rawness.

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