One of the warnings on the door at Bj McNeill’s torn apart (dissolution) is of full frontal nudity. What it doesn’t mention is that this doesn’t just mean physical nakedness. Yes, the first three scenes of the play each begin with a couple having enthusiastic sex, but there’s a lot more going on here. Over 90 breathless, intense minutes, the six characters in this interlocking trio of love stories are stripped bare emotionally as well as sexually, as we touch on family, politics, drug addiction, homosexuality and much more.
I previously saw the play at Theatre N16, where I remember being struck by the proximity of Szymon Ruszczewski’s set – a string cage that encloses the stage area – to the audience. At The Hope Theatre, if possible, we’re even closer to the action and there’s nowhere to hide as the three stories unfold mere inches away, sometimes quite literally in our faces. Alina (Nastazja Somers), a student in West Germany in the early 1980s, is locked in a passionate relationship with an American soldier (Charlie Allen) who’ll soon have to return home. Elliott (Elliott Rogers), in London in 1999, is in love with Australian backpacker Casey (Christina Baston) whose visa’s about to run out. And Holly (Sarah Hastings), now, is struggling to rationalise her decision to leave her perfect husband and embark on a relationship with Erica (Monty Leigh) – who’s dealing with problems and a past of her own.
There’s a secret that links the three couples together, which is gradually revealed piece by piece as the play goes on; seeing it for the second time it’s fascinating to see the little clues scattered along the way. But what ultimately unites them all, as the play’s title suggests, is the experience of lost love and the lasting impact this can have – and not only on those directly involved. The early scenes of carefree, passionate lovemaking soon feel like a distant memory as the clothes go on and the relationships begin to crumble. And though the three couples are indeed torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, it’s clear that, while their love is genuine, each also has (perhaps) insurmountable issues that may only be revealed in the privacy of their own bedroom.
The show’s main strength lies in its excellent cast, all but one of whom reprise their roles from torn apart‘s previous run in Balham. The relationships – both physical and otherwise – are totally convincing, and the actors play expertly on our emotions as they try desperately to hold on to what they have at any cost. McNeill has made a point of placing female characters at the centre of the action and allowing the female voice to come through loud and proud, particularly in Nastazja Somers’ Alina and Christina Baston’s Casey, who stand up for what they think is right rather than take the easy option, even if it means losing everything.
But McNeill also avoids falling into the trap of promoting women by relegating men to a one-dimensional role; both Charlie Allen and Elliott Rogers portray characters who are just as complex and damaged as the women they love. Sarah Hastings and Monty Leigh complete the cast as two women who come from very different backgrounds and have very different ideas about pretty much everything. They spend more time arguing than anything else, yet there’s a genuine tenderness in their relationship, and Holly’s desperate attempts to hold on to the life she’s only just discovered is particularly heartbreaking.
Fearless and uncompromising, torn apart (dissolution) is not a play that can be easily forgotten; nor is it one that everybody will agree on (and there’s enough material for several post-show discussions) – which just goes to show that when it comes to love, there are no right or wrong answers.
torn apart (dissolution) is at The Hope Theatre until 22nd July.