Joy Division said it best…

Torn Apart (Dissolution), The Hope Theatre, Upper St, N1

Review by Ben Shillito

BJ McNeill’s celebrated debut play ‘Torn Apart (Dissolution)’ is back in town for a month, and lovers of West End Fringe theatre won’t want to miss this chance to catch a future classic in the full flush of its youth.

‘Torn Apart’ is a fascinating, fleshy, deeply challenging work, and this production sees six stunning young performers giving their all, and more, in the Hope Theatre’s sweatily intimate upstairs space.

Unfolding in a wood-and-string cage (McNeill originally envisioned a glass box, but the budget wasn’t there, perhaps fortuitously) with an anonymous bed parked in the middle, the play makes exceptional use of its theatricality, with screaming arguments and passionate love-making giving way to petty deceptions and bursts of dance as three couples are torn apart in the prison of dissolving love.

Although ostensibly unconnected, the intersecting tales have a cruel link at their heart, a bitter narrative that runs through the stories and back again, as each part of the play comments upon and reconfigures the others, and the progression of epochs and narratives is best read as a harrowing indictment of the capitalist occupation of the human body in the last four decades.

Cold War Germany in the early 1980s seems a pointed and inauspicious start to the play, but McNeill confounds the obvious reading by putting us in the liberated West instead of the brittle East – this first pairing, Nastazja Somers’ hypnotic Alina and Charlie Allen’s nameless, painfully masculine Soldier, are wildly, perfectly mismatched, so free with each other that the deceptions and omissions, when they start, are heartbreaking.

Spin on to the end of the millennium, to ‘Cool Britannia’ at the fin de siècle, where the brooding Elliot (Elliot Rogers, in a role written for him and which he wears like a second skin) is head over heels for a girl with one foot out the door. Christina Baston is a gamine, ingénue-ish presence as Casey, an Aussie backpacker on a too-short visa, her sprightly haecceity cut down by her pragmatic refusal to commit to a man who cannot invest in a love without a guaranteed future.

And then the present day, and a relationship of unequals between the late-onset lesbian convert, Holly (Sarah Hastings) and the savage realist, Erica (Monty Leigh), which is where the slow burn of McNeill’s script really starts to smoulder. Hastings and Leigh are magnetic, their scenes weighted down by unspoken words and misunderstood intentions, but McNeill’s tightly-built plot refuses to let the audience take sides and, more importantly, refuses to tip over into domestic cliché.

Too often, “issue” plays deal with totems instead of recognisable humans, but McNeill is far too canny to allow his audience the luxury of partisanship, and the uniformly excellent cast has far more to give than mere readings of scripted dialogue. Elliot is needy and Casey is immature, Holly is selfish and Erica is weak, but at the same time they are none of these things – every time we return to Germany, to Alina’s breaking heart and the Soldier’s impractical love, new meaning feeds into the related stories until the fabric of the cage is no longer a prison keeping the characters in place, but a wall to keep the audience out, preventing us from reaching in and embracing these beautiful people in all their pain.

The time periods of the play are economically evoked with clever use of music cues, and Sebastian Atterbury’s intelligent lighting design toys with the caged actors, neither blindingly obvious nor invisibly subtle, while Szymon Ruszczewski’s set is a brilliant monolith, a restraining lump of a thing whose rigid frame houses walls that ripple and yield in startling ways.

McNeill is a sensitive writer, and the inherent critique is never overwhelming – in the 1980s, the Cold War makes love impossible, and the children of its victims choose life in the hedonistic nineties, blind to the bureaucracy that chips away at their personal freedoms until even gender and sexuality are not matters of the soul, but coldly capital commodities.

Life erupts from a boarding house room in a broken Europe, hands clasp across vast oceans, and the algorithmic certainty of dissolution, separation, and death casts an ineluctable shadow across the gilded cage in which our stories unfold and refold and unfold and repeat.

We end where we began.

Two people trapped, one pinned by the weight of a child growing within her, the other facing his failure and sensing his looming suicide. With poignant savagery, McNeill embodies everything in a deck of cards which scatters across the stage, and the audience, robbed of the catharsis of a grinning curtain call, shuffle away from that horrible cage dissolved, moved, and torn apart.

Torn Apart (Dissolution) runs at the Hope Theatre, N1, until 22nd July.

 

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