“I’m not what you expected, am I?”
Alice is very open for a kidnap victim. Claustrophilia positions itself as a play about a young woman incapable of connecting with the outside world, but in practise, Alice spends the entire show desperately working to prove how sincerely she belongs in it. For an hour, we watch her mind distractedly leap from purple KFCs in Cairo to dodgy clubs in Peckham, from ambitious escape routes to weaving through a care and benefits system that clearly isn’t equipped for the magnitude of what she’s been through. With an admirable diligence, she avoids the topic at hand. The reason we’re all here. Perhaps she’s not equipped for the magnitude of it either.
The room she was confined to for 983 days is not described, and the horrors of her time there are barely glimpsed at. Playwright Naomi Westerman and director Rebecca Gwyther recognise their audience’s curiosity and deny it– they know we’re here for the gory details, not to watch the pieces get picked up. But Alice doesn’t tell us what we want to know. She doesn’t tell us about the kidnap, the torture, the fear and the abuse and the misery. Not much, and certainly not with the same theatrical bounce she dedicates to helpful survival tips for kidnapees, chirping merrily at us like one of those online life hack enthusiasts. But Alice’s reality doesn’t quite add up.
Claustrophilia is slippery. Alice’s story doesn’t hurtle towards any clear conclusion. This isn’t an escape story or a teary-eyed reunion. Often, it’s just the untrustworthy ramblings of a girl doing her best to block out the bad stuff. After the play, we sip our wine and try to decode her – why was she raised in the Middle East, but kidnapped in England? Where were her diplomat parents when she sunk into the care system? When did she find the time to read Shakespeare during her incarceration?
The little inconsistencies knitted together to the only possible conclusion: Alice was lying to us. The foundations of the play had crumbled and we hadn’t even noticed – the realisation had come too late. Perhaps in part due to Eleanor Crosswell’s conviction in performance, we believe the things Alice says. Her relationship with her audience is often comfortable and always confident. We are at various points her confidant, her lover and her witness.
Claustrophilia is a misnomer. This is not a play about walls, but about wide open spaces. About the expanse of life that stretches on after a trauma and a victim’s desperate attempts to fill it. Fill it with acceptance, with control, with five different kinds of pasta in a cupboard, with normalcy and with lies.
Claustrophilia was on at the Vault festival 2017. Click here for more details.