Between April 2020 and February 2021, 13,162 people contacted the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, an increase of 5,000 from previous years. This statistic appears in the programme of Vanessa Cruickshank’s tense and challenging drama Within These Four Walls, performed at Questors Theatre this weekend for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and brings home the shocking scale of a problem that’s become significantly more widespread since the Covid pandemic began. This rollercoaster of a story takes the audience on an unsettling journey, ending with an emotional revelation that makes you completely question and re-evaluate everything you’ve just watched.
Act 1 of the play tells a horrifying but relatively textbook story of domestic abuse, which draws on Cruickshank’s professional experience with domestic violence and makes sure to demonstrate all the warning signs we should be looking out for in the real world. Karen (Vanessa Cruickshank) meets Jonathan (Kurtis Lowe) at work and falls instantly for his charms, despite the warnings of their colleague Sarah (Helena Huang) that he’s trouble. Soon the two have moved in together, and not long after that, he starts controlling what she wears and who she sees, repeatedly undermining her confidence, and finally escalating to physical violence. Eventually Karen makes the courageous decision to leave, but a final confrontation between the two ends in tragedy.
This is where things begin to get interesting, from a theatrical point of view. For a while in Act 2, the narrative appears to have got a bit jumbled, with some confused double casting and what seem to be glaring factual inaccuracies in the presentation of the legal process that follows Act 1’s deadly conclusion. That is until the closing moments, when the truth is revealed and suddenly everything slots into place. The reason this is so interesting is because at that moment, it’s difficult to remember how much of what we thought was happening is because we were led in that direction by the script, and how much was purely our own assumption – and if it’s the latter, what does that say about the way society views women and, more specifically, violence against women, and even more specifically than that, violence against women of colour?
As Karen, writer Vanessa Cruickshank is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist. Just like her friend Sarah, we find ourselves desperate for her to escape from her abusive partner, but at the same time we come to understand enough about Karen as a person to fully understand why she stays. Kurtis Lowe makes a convincing villain, with the audience audibly shocked on more than one occasion by the viciousness of his words and behaviour, and Helena Huang and Aniya Sek Kanu provide differing outsider views of the situation as colleagues Sarah and Kitty. The other two characters – Karen’s mum Natasha (Peaches) and coroner Penelope Fraser (Elizabeth Shaw) – are well performed, but could be developed further so they become more than just vehicles for key facts in Act 2.
Director Atticus Orsborn sets all the action in Karen and Jonny’s living room, a stark white set onto which the characters’ emotions are projected through the highly effective use of dramatic lighting. By not moving away from this domestic setting even in Act 2, we’re reminded that what should be a safe space can so often be anything but – and that what happens afterwards can often be just as traumatic.
It’s the mark of a good play when you find yourself thinking about it all the way home, and beyond – and Within These Four Walls certainly does that. There are parts of Act 2 that could be tightened up, but on the whole, this is an important and well thought out play that will enrage and educate in equal measure. Ultimately, its goal is a clear and noble one: to send its audience away with a knowledge and understanding of what domestic violence is and what it looks like, so that we feel empowered to get involved when we’re needed and not look away from someone who might be silently crying out for help.