Anthony Nielson’s 2002 play, Stitching, is, famously, something of a shock-fest. In Pip Minnithorpe’s production, its sexual politics play out on and around a bed with filthy sheets. A couple in a casual relationship with multiple bits on the side discover they’re expecting a baby. Neither are ready to become parents but nor are they ready to face their other options.
At first Stu (Adam Howden) and Abby (Sarah Harkins) bicker, then they fight with increasing intensity. In the tiny White Bear the audience are basically sitting in the couple’s bedroom and the sense of voyeurism is stifling, especially once things start to escalate, flitting between sex and violence and everything in between. It looks like Abby and Stu might kill one another before they manage to bring new life into the world. They pull each other’s hair for pain and for pleasure and force a dildo down each other’s throats and the passion that Howden and Harkins pour into the relationship is frighteningly convincing.
Once things calm down, talk turns to a termination. Abby, however, is no #shoutyourabortion feminist. Instead she flounders, one moment insecurely waiting for Stuart to make a decision for her and the next shouting at him for being a “total cunt” (the c-word is use prolifically and viciously both as an insult and a term for the vagina throughout). Neilson’s portrait of a toxic relationship is disturbing and engaging enough but the horror-film vibe of the lights, music and a creepy kids’ TV style refrain of “We will fix it. We will mend it…” hints that there’s more to Stitching.
Next we’re in a bedroom again but it’s a different one and a different time, we soon gather, although confusingly the only visible change is that Abby has tied her hair up. Now she’s a mature student surviving on a diet of “cum and Ryvita”, paying her bills through prostitution. The fractured intimacy is replaced with charged distance and Stu is not her boyfriend but a disgruntled client who mansplains the business using images he’s found online. He tells her to dress as a school girl because, apparently, there’s a bit of the paedophile in everyone, and to be prepared to suck off a horse for a quick fifty quid. It’s throwaway lines like these that saw the play banned by the Film and Stage Classification Board in Catholic Malta in 2009 before it even made it to its first night due to the “blasphemy” and “dangerous sexual perversions” it contains. Other outbursts, all in one toe-curling scene, include Stu’s shameless confession that photos of emaciated Jews at Auschwitz got him off as a young boy and Abby’s horrifying fantasy about the sexual abuse and murder of children. It’s challenging stuff, even all these years later, but the increasingly dark and depraved sexual themes a more likely to evoke a wince here and there rather than total outrage. There ar times though where it does all feel a bit gratuitous, especially once it’s exposed as nothing but role-play, a bizarre and unconvincing coping mechanism for a couple struggling with grief.
Despite the strong performances of Howden and Harkins, the final revelation confuses the play’s already murky timeline. Genuinely terrifying scenes alluding to a dead child are never properly incorporated and the supernatural elements hover over the claustrophobia of the drama only to frustratingly disappear before we can make sense of it. ‘
Nielson’s play smashes taboos but instead of picking up enough of the pieces left behind to create some kind of dialogue it forces a bruised and broken couple through a series of disturbing and fragmented scenes. Stitching is still difficult to watch and there’s little reward for the ordeal by the end: the plot unties itself, unravelling far too quickly to be believable and the character work is undone for the sake of a few gasps. That said, there’s something deliciously haunting and unfinished about it – I’ll be hearing the spooky child singing “We will fix it. We will me-end it” for days to come.