The Amber Trap by Tabitha Mortiboy gets something absolutely, succinctly right. It articulates, in a way that I can’t remember seeing before, how heavy and violent the male gaze is upon queer women. It doesn’t do this in the way you might think. There’s no salivating lecher, no pantomime Gaston figure leering whilst he flexes his muscles.
The character of Michael, the antagonist of the play, is a barely-18, attractive, painfully earnest medical student, who loves juggling and magic tricks, and can name every bone in the body. He was probably bullied for being clever at school and has never got over it. He seems excited by using the labelling machine, and everything he says is weighted with this earnest intensity, the sense that he is the romantic hero of the film playing inside his head.
Amber Trap is set in a corner shop, somewhere in the north of England. Katie and Hope have worked, met, and fallen in love there. We open on a scene of claustrophobic safety, in Jasmine Swan’s remarkable set. Katie and Hope, with their mother-figure employer Jo, have their comfortable existence shaken up by the arrival of Michael, the newest employee.
He is clever, and misunderstood, and deeply entitled. He isn’t what you’d expect of a third party in a love triangle, but he forces himself into that role. He lays claim to the woman he perceives as his, all the while declaring that he is the good guy! He wouldn’t hurt anyone! He’s not like that!
He is, in short, the most dangerous kind of incel, hiding under a veneer of respectability signifiers. His whiteness, his class, his saviour-complex declarations of ‘you’re not fat!’ and ‘Does she hurt you? I can help you!’ are weaponised and used to terrorise the other characters. Misha Butler gives the standout performance in the play, moving from sweet and awkward to volatile and destructive. He makes phrases like ‘I’m just an old romantic’ feel terrifying.
The play charts Michael’s increasing obsession with Katie, through gifts, slightly inappropriate questions and repeated offers of a lift home. She says at one point ‘I don’t want to provoke him. I don’t want to start a fire in a matchbox.’ Michael’s liberal and youthful veneer masks a level of sexism, homophobia and racism; as part of his obsession with Katie, he casts his love rival Hope in the angry black woman role. He does all this whilst still insisting ‘I’m not like that’
Jasmine Swan’s corner-shop set is great. It’s busy and claustrophobic, loads of STUFF lining the walls. I’ve written in my notebook ‘I hope they use all the things’ and I’m a bit disappointed, as the actors move around the set like they’re afraid of knocking something over. There’s some very-carefully-checking-best before dates and occasionally moving a sandwich onto a shelf, half-covering the floor with a dry mop (use a broom! I want to shout) and it makes me feel like the setting isn’t important enough for the story. Lucy Adam’s lighting is the most articulate part of the design- switching from corner shop panel lights to rigged lamps shining over the audience unsettles our sense of place within the naturalistic set, and it feels like it’s asking: where is danger coming from?
The most important thing for me though, is the juxtaposition of Katie’s struggle to come out of the closet, and Michael’s claim over her. I just… don’t know if those two tensions sit perfectly alongside each other? The greatest strength of the play is the depiction of Michael’s sugar coated violence, and I think it could have worked just as well if Michael became obsessed with an openly queer woman in a happy, healthy, if private, relationship. Does he only make this sexual claim because she is pretending to be straight? From what we know of him, he would have done it anyway.
Katie’s struggles with her sexuality feel anecdotal, when they should be front and centre. Moreover, they should trigger a discussion about the girl’s social isolation, which isn’t really explored. If they’ve been together for two years, and Jo is the only one that knows? That’s messed up. The Amber Trap portrays a compelling villain, but leaves queer women’s complexities by the wayside.
The Amber Trap is on at Theatre 503 till 18th May. More info here.