Review: torn apart (dissolution) at The Hope Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

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.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

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.

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: Torn Apart (Dissolution) at Theatre N16

Torn Apart (Dissolution), written and directed by Bj McNeill, is an intense and compelling drama about three couples. Though their stories take place years and miles apart, there’s a common theme of love and loss – not only of partners but of family, home and history – as well as an actual connection between the three that’s revealed a little at a time, with the final piece falling into place just moments before the end.

In 1980s West Germany, young Polish student Alina (Nastazja Somers) falls for an American soldier (Simon Donohue), even though she knows that sooner or later he’ll have to follow his duty and leave her behind. In 1999, Elliott (Elliott Rogers), a chef from London, and Casey (Christina Baston), a backpacker from Melbourne, try to come to terms with the fact their relationship has an expiry date dictated by the Home Office. And in present day Britain, Holly (Sarah Hastings) finally plucks up the courage to leave her perfect husband for Erika (Monty Leigh), but their new-found happiness is threatened by devastating news.

Photo credit: Yuebi Yang

Szymon Ruszczewski’s set is visually striking: the stage, at the centre of which is a double bed, is enclosed within a large cage made of string. This creates a space that is at once intimate and claustrophobic – inside it the lovers make plans, laugh, dance, argue, have sex, and share the complex family histories that ultimately bind them together. At times they play with and caress the strings that surround them, while at others they reach out through them in a desperate attempt to be free.

The play holds nothing back, in emotional or physical terms, and the audience is placed in the sometimes quite uncomfortable position of the voyeur, watching a series of deeply private encounters unfold. This effect is heightened by the absence of a curtain call; as we leave the theatre, two of the actors remain on stage in a final embrace, seemingly unaware that we’ve ever been there (similarly, the action is already underway as we enter, with the same two actors enjoying a night of passion that leaves little to the imagination).

The play is gripping throughout, with some powerful performances from its excellent cast. Elliott Rogers and Monty Leigh are particularly impressive as two of the most damaged characters, Elliott and Erika, who simultaneously can’t believe their luck and are terrified of losing the person they love to forces beyond their control. It’s only at the end that the play seems to suddenly run out of energy. A crucial closing scene is unnecessarily repetitive and takes rather too long to make its point, which means we lose momentum in the run-up to the big final revelation, and it doesn’t have quite the dramatic impact that it should.

Photo credit: Yuebi Yang

Torn Apart (Dissolution) is a love story, but not in the traditional sense; nobody’s riding off into the sunset in this tale. It makes us pause and consider what love means to us – is it something to be desired, or feared? And yet, surprisingly, this is not as bleak a story as it might sound. Each of the characters gains something from their relationship, even if it’s just the memory of what it feels like to be loved, perhaps for the first time in their life. So while it’s not a happy ending, it’s not without an element of hope as well.

Full of drama, passion and emotion, Torn Apart is a heartfelt and ambitious play that speaks to us all in some way. If it could maintain its pace and energy right to the end, there’s a powerful piece of theatre here.

Torn Apart (Dissolution) is at Theatre N16 until 30th September.

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… 😉