Review: Abigail at The Bunker

The Bunker’s first season concludes with Fiona Doyle’s two-hander, Abigail. Although why it’s called Abigail is an intriguing question, since the two characters in the play remain nameless throughout. It’s a dark tale about a dysfunctional, abusive relationship – but in a welcome challenge to convention, here it’s the man who’s the victim, struggling to find his way back to who he was before they met.

It all starts well: after meeting in the snow outside Berlin Airport, the couple embark on a whirlwind romance. He’s quite a bit older than her, but their attraction is instant and intense. By the time their one-year anniversary rolls around, though, it’s all fallen apart. He says he wants to leave; she has other ideas. Doyle’s script hops back and forth in time, filling in the story of their relationship as their final showdown unfolds in the present.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane
Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane

Tia Bannon and Mark Rose give compelling performances as the unhappy couple, dealing skilfully with the many changes in mood as time skips back and forth. Bannon has a bright smile that appears at inappropriate moments and which never quite reaches her eyes. And there’s an eerie, almost robotic calm about her throughout, which makes her violent outbursts all the more shocking. Rose, meanwhile, is the very image of a broken man, and handles the physical side of the role well; I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that at times his performance is uncomfortably convincing.

Max Dorey’s set, made up of boxes stacked in a huge pile, allows director Joshua McTaggart the chance to get creative with the staging; the two actors cover almost every inch of the space as they climb all over it, producing props and costumes that are concealed within the set, and which gradually end up scattered around the stage as the couple’s anniversary evening unravels.

So what’s there is good – but the problem is it feels like there’s quite a bit missing from the story. There’s nothing wrong with plot gaps in a play; having everything handed to you on a plate removes any need for interpretation or discussion afterwards. But at just 60 minutes, this play has more gaps than most – and leaves us with a lot of questions but not enough info to try and answer them.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane
Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane

There’s an attempt in the script to explore the psychology of the abuser, but without sufficient detail for us to really understand her motivations. Some conversations seem like they’re about to reveal an important clue – but then the scene changes and we’re left (quite literally) in the dark.

As for the abused, we know next to nothing about him; he keeps insisting he’s not himself in this relationship, but apart from the scene in which the couple first meet, we get very few insights into who he really is outside it; she spends a lot of time reminiscing about her early life, but he never gets that opportunity. No attempt is made to explain why he’s stayed in a relationship that he says himself was only good for the first couple of months, nor what’s prompted him to finally take action now. It’s not often we get to see a depiction of abuse that’s this way around, so it feels like we’ve missed out on a rare opportunity to hear the point of view of a male victim.

I’ll say it again: what’s there is good. This is an excellent production, with strong performances, of a play that just feels a little bit too short. With a bit of work, this could be a really powerful piece of theatre, shedding light on an issue that currently doesn’t get enough attention. As it is now, it’s an enjoyably dark drama, but it doesn’t make the lasting impression that it probably should.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Taming of the Shrew at Above the Arts

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy with a dark heart – a twisted little love story that’s generally considered one of Shakespeare’s most problematic. And for that very reason, it’s also a great candidate for a gender swap experiment. Nowadays, to watch a man attempt to control his wife by a combination of mental and physical torment is called abuse. But do we react the same when it’s a woman in charge, or is that just considered girl power?

Custom/Practice have taken on this question with great enthusiasm in their gender-reversed production of The Taming of the Shrew, the centrepiece of the inaugural Verve Festival at the Arts, celebrating cultural, ethnic and gender diversity in theatre. In this version of the story, the women hold all the power and it’s the men – trussed up in corsets and tottering around in women’s shoes – who must do as they’re told.

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Doing away with the framing story of Christopher Sly, we’re thrown straight into the action. Famously bad-tempered Katherina (Kazeem Tosin Amore) is forced against his will into marrying Petruchio (Martina Laird), who’s more than willing to take on a challenge in exchange for her husband’s generous dowry. This frees his younger brother, the young, handsome Bianca (Tim Bowie), who has plenty of women after him but hasn’t been allowed to marry until Katherina does. As Bianca’s suitors, exchanging increasingly insincere air kisses, battle for his affections, Katherina’s new wife sets out to break his spirit and bring him to heel through a systematic programme of abuse and neglect.

Perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, this spirited, high-energy production directed by Rae McKen delivers plenty of laughs – not least, dare I say, in the moments when the actors throw Shakespeare’s script out the window and start ad libbing. Brigid Lohrey and Eugenia Caruso make a brilliant comedy duo as Bianca’s bumbling suitors Gremio and Hortensio – think Cinderella’s ugly sisters fighting over Prince Charming – while Kayla Miekle’s Tranio is the ultimate fairy godmother with attitude, and Lorenzo Martelli gets some of the biggest laughs as Petruchio’s long-suffering servant, Grumio.

Meanwhile, Martina Laird gives a captivating performance as Petruchio, at once seductive and tyrannical. Swaggering about the stage, she has a way of directing her asides straight at individual members of the audience that makes us feel somehow complicit in her torture of her husband. And while it’s hard not to laugh at Katherina’s desperate expression as Petruchio launches herself at him, all the time we’re uncomfortably aware that if it were a man behaving this way, we’d probably be appalled instead of amused.

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This is theatre with a dual purpose – to make us laugh, and make us think – and on both fronts, it delivers. In a fast and frantically paced production, the cast never miss a beat, and genuinely seem to be having as much fun as the audience (occasionally more). And while the play’s central theme is always going to be challenging, gender swap or no gender swap, the awkward final scene is softened here by a Beyonce-inspired finale that, much like the rest of the show, is impossible to resist.


Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉