With Theresa May's landmark domestic abuse bill now back on the parliamentary agenda, Human Story Theatre's most recent production, Happy Even After, could not be more timely. The theatre company has made a name for itself tackling social issues as wide-ranging as alcoholism, dementia, loneliness and breast cancer through the medium of drama. Founders Gaye Poole and Amy Enticknap, along with director Anna Tolputt, now turn their attentions to domestic abuse.
The hour-long play weaves together the stories of two couples: young newlyweds Naomi and Ash, and Kate and Peter, a middle-aged pair who have both been married previously. The performance opens with their weddings, shown simultaneously in a joyful scene that brings to mind the denouement of Shakespearean comedies. Yet as the honeymoon phase fades and normal life resumes, facets of domestic abuse creep into the parallel lives of both households.
The intimate performance space at the Old Fire Station is ideally suited for the production, and minimal staging emphasised that this play revolves around the small but talented cast rather than aesthetic frills. Initially, Imogen Wilde's Naomi is the embodiment of newlywed excitement and promise, and the audience can only watch on despairingly as this infectious energy ebbs away and is supplanted by fear. Paul Tonkin acquits himself well as university lecturer Ash, and though his character is coercive, threatening and paranoid, he manages to create a degree of pathos too. His behaviour is partly linked to a troubled childhood, and the irreconcilable difference between him and Naomi: he is desperate to start a family, while she prioritises a career in textiles, with homebuilding a prospect for the future.
It is the story of the older pairing, however, that is the most distressing. Both have emerged from bereavement and abusive relationships - their union is a much-needed chance to start afresh, even in the twilight of their lives. The comfort and fond companionship they enjoy is evoked poignantly through naturalistic performances from Jilly Bond and Iain Gain. The way that their relationship sours is an example of what is termed "situational couple violence": a case in which a person is driven to abuse by external factors or sudden changes in their life. The reaction of Gain's Peter to the decline of the marriage was particularly upsetting: he is likeable figure, a down-to-earth policeman and an optimist who struggles to come to terms with events going on around him.
Looking around at the audience, many (including myself) had hands clutching their mouths, all completely emotionally invested in the harrowing events taking place. What was perhaps most striking was the nuance and complexity of the piece. Even as abuse is ongoing, characters recognise familiar, well-loved traits in their partners, as well as mood swings and mannerisms which are horrifyingly alien. There are flashes of humour, too, particularly in the rapport of Kate and Peter, in between moments of darkness.
The play's compelling finale was followed by a Q&A session with representatives from support groups such Reducing the Risk, Samaritans, A2 Dominion and BH&O, a legal practice in Abingdon specialising in family law and mediation. The session, which will follow every performance on the tour, promotes frank discussion of domestic abuse and outlines the network of organisations that help those affected. It also provides an opportunity for the cast and volunteers to elaborate on issues touched on by the play: that the definition of domestic abuse refers to violence (physical or emotional) between those who share a household, including family members and landlords and tenants, rather than solely between partners; that domestic abuse sufferers can be of any gender (even though the National Domestic Violence Helpline will not speak to male victims). The evening as a whole was both moving and enlightening. Happy Even After is urgent, direct and powerful: its unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse will raise questions and open eyes.