The most impactful and memorable scene in Abigail Hood’s new play takes place in a family home in Oldham, where dad Ken has just arrived home after seven years behind bars for GBH with intent. His 16-year-old daughter Kate comes home and is shocked to see him there; he had not been expected for a few more days. The mum, Helen, is thrilled to have the family back together – but that’s because her subconscious has buried the abuse Ken inflicted on the family.
After Helen leaves the room, Ken drags Kate behind the sofa and rapes her. Helen, meanwhile, re-enters the room and, facing away from the sofa, recounts a story of the overwhelming happiness she felt, years ago, when Ken took her out to a fancy restaurant and proposed.
The rape taking place is obviously horrifying enough, but the dissonance between what is hidden from the audience’s view, behind the sofa, and the vivid sense of joy in Helen’s anecdote makes this one of the most disturbing sequences I’ve ever seen in the theatre. The scene itself is handled well: there is no escaping from the brutality of Ken’s horrific act of sexual violence, but the staging prevents it becoming gratuitous. Maggie Saunders does an admirable job as Helen, the most complicated and difficult role of the play, while Ian Gain is excellent as Ken, a man with evil bursting out from the seams of an almost-cuddly exterior.
Unfortunately, the structure of the play and the style of the production do not do this scene justice. The starting point for Hood were the experiences of families dealing with a child that ran away and was never found. What the play actually consists of is two stories, told through alternating scenes. One follows a father, Greg, who befriends a young escort, Charlotte (played by Hood), who resembles his missing daughter. The other follows Kate, her parents and her brother Danny, and Kate’s eventual decision to run away.
There are seventeen scenes in the play and sixteen scene changes, each of which involves cast members rearranging the five wooden benches forming the set, while the same three thudding electro tunes play over the top. Along with the simple back-and-forth between the two stories, set in London and Oldham, this continual movement means the narrative lacks rhythm. Some scenes come across as banal, while other generate unwarranted giggles. If this was an album, it would be a greatest hits with little thought given to the track listing.
The second most significant scene sees Danny return home to confront Ken, after some time away, only to find Helen alone in the house. It provides a moment of catharsis in a play all about being in limbo. But the bizarre actions and manner of Helen, who suffers from an unspecified mental illness, make the scene absurd and lead to hoots of laughter from the audience. This is not totally unwelcome, but comes across as unintentional.
The other story, meanwhile, is a perfectly fine short play in its own right, but when juxtaposed with the horrific experiences of Kate, Danny and Helen, feels minor. Abuse – physical, sexual and emotional – is everywhere in Dangling, and the experiences of Charlotte, pimped out for non-sexual liaisons by her boyfriend, who also has a penchant for cutting scars into her thighs, are horrific. There should be no hierarchy of trauma. But in the context of the play, Charlotte’s scenes are like sorbet in between courses of vindaloo. By the end of the story, I was almost hoping for the decent, misunderstood Greg to turn out to be his daughter’s killer after all.
Hood is a talented writer, and each of the nine actors brings something engaging to their performance. Dangling is full of strong moments – but I came away with the feeling that Hood and director Kevin Tomlinson had not fully recognised the extent to which the rape scene hangs over everything else that takes place.
Dangling is on until 26 August 2017 at the Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.