Review – Lay Me Bare, Athena Theatre, Flash Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year Acting Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 23rd April 2018

Flash FestivalAthena Theatre’s Flash Festival play, Lay Me Bare, is a three-hander that tells the stories of three different women and their experiences of domestic abuse at the hands of three unseen but violent partners. At the beginning of the play they all nurse black eyes as they stare sadly into their mirrors, trying to come to terms with the violence that has been inflicted on them. Applying makeup might make the visual evidence temporarily go away, but there’s no hiding the damage done beneath. Monica is a student, totally under the spell of TJ, in and out of prison; how will he react when he finds out she’s pregnant? Fola is a devout Christian, whose only wish is to be able to conceive a child with her husband; how will he react when he finds out she’s not pregnant? Elsie is a hairdresser, struggling to pay the bills, working hard while her Phil stays out late getting drunk, turning violent when she complains at him over his reckless behaviour. “It won’t happen again” avows his disembodied voice; does he keep his promise?

Lay Me BareHere we have three strong characterisations of the three abused women; three similar problems, but with three very different outcomes. I really enjoyed Xara Chisano’s portrayal of Monica, a very quiet, reserved, self-punishing character who has endless excuses for her boyfriend’s terrible behaviour. It’s as though he has taken away her ability to express herself and have her own identity, and you really feel the struggle as Ms Chisano tries to reassert herself and finally pluck up courage to tell TJ about the pregnancy. I have to confess I did sense a little bit of water in the eye as she portrayed his vicious reaction. Very strong stuff – but with Monica there is a small sense of hope in the final scene, which gives the play a (relatively) bright and optimistic ending.

Xara ChisanoMaddy Ogedengbe gives an emotionally charged performance as Fola; you can really feel her pain by looking at her anguished face. When she meets the doctor who confirms the blood test results, her fear and alarm is palpable. Perhaps it was a little strange that the doctor doesn’t seem to be that sensitive to her position; on the other hand, perhaps it’s no surprise, given how overworked our medical staff are. Her cries of torment are really harrowing. It was another really strong performance.

Maddy OgedengbeFarrah Dark is a spiky, hard-working Elsie who gives as good as she gets when arguing with her wretched drunken partner. I didn’t feel as though the role was quite as full or emotionally written as the other two, but her anguish was strongly portrayed and her representation of being the victim of a physical attack was very vivid and tough to watch. I also really liked Ms Dark as Monica’s friend Stacey, an ebullient and funny characterisation that lightened the otherwise tense and oppressive mood.

Farrah DarkAll three women suffer at the hands of truly objectionable and vicious men: a drunkard, a recidivist, and maybe a religious zealot? We don’t know that much about the men, and the play allows us to fill those gaps ourselves, which appeals to my sense of making the audience work a little to get the most out of the play.

There was one rather unusual aspect to how this play is presented to the audience, and that’s the manner of conducting telephone conversations. On a couple of occasions, the victim and the abuser are on a phone call together and what we the audience hear is both sides of the conversation talking, pre-recorded. Would it not have felt more natural for the victim character to speak live on stage with either pre-recorded responses or indeed, the responses being delivered live, but from off-stage? With the actor just passively listening to both sides of the conversation, stylistically it just looked and felt a bit odd.

Anyway, this is just nit-picking. The play gives us three very strong stories, eloquently told, and powerfully conveyed. Congratulations to all on a memorable production!

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