REVIEW – ‘Fresh Start’ – Origins Theatre

Sometimes, there’s a play that causes a writer’s block for all the right reasons. ‘Fresh Start’ was one such play, posing question after question and leaving the audience to answer them.

Written by Heaton Wilson, the story centres around Alice and her husband, Bob. Married for many years, the audience arrive on the scene in the midst of troubled times for the pair, and it soon becomes apparent that everything is not as it appears.

This play has been performed twice on the Island, once at Aspire and once at Shorwell Parish Hall, and both performances have received glowing feedback: it’s easy to see why. ‘Fresh Start’ is certainly the kind of play that should be more widely seen – it’s simply staged with a small cast, but engages with issues so complex it’s a wonder they fit into one play!

The scene was beautifully set with live music from the incredibly talented John Bentley and John Hacker. In particular, ‘Alice’s Kitchen’, written especially for the play, with its lilting, soothing melody at odds with its poignant message, was a stand-out.

“It’s hard to hold on, when you’re battered and torn, and the darkness breathes under your door…”

A hint at what was to come, and a message that resonated, visibly, with many of the audience…and invisibly with the rest, I don’t doubt.

‘Fresh Start’ itself was a powerful piece, in an understated way. There were no dramatic action sequences, no roll-about-laughing jokes, and no ugly fights; it didn’t need them. It was the ‘other’ side of domestic violence, and the message was clear – it doesn’t have to leave bruises to be domestic violence, and it doesn’t have to be name-calling and malicious words to be bullying, and nor does such behaviour have to come only from a spouse.

Geoff Kirk was a striking Bob, the husband prone to bouts of rage, constantly needling at Alice, undermining her and knocking her confidence to the point where she becomes too afraid to stand up for herself. He never actually hit her…but that didn’t make him any less dangerous. She was cowed, every time, before he got that far – I had to wonder, had she stood up for herself, whether he might have crossed that line?

Joining the cast as Alice’s friend Beryl was Pamela Stirling, who had some cracking one-liners that alleviated moments of high tension on more than one occasion. Beryl, however, turned out to be just as controlling as Bob, in her own way, crossing the line from concerned into controlling on more than one occasion, manipulating Alice’s feelings and shaping her opinions. Whether Beryl knew she was doing it or not was questionable, and only made her character more effective.

A real powerhouse of a performance came from Jason Harris, who surely must be one of the Island’s most versatile actors. As Simon, he was fully believable as the young man abused as a child and now trying to help others like him…until he, too, shaped by his experiences, showed a darker side. Again, the talent of the actor complemented the writing, and more questions were raised.

Maureen Sullivan so often takes on overtly powerful, or funny, characters – drunken rogues, commanding parents, comedy policemen, ladies of state – that it registered all the more poignantly to see her on the receiving end of Bob’s abuse, Beryl’s control and Simon’s dubious motives. That’s not to say this wasn’t a powerful character – Alice was powerful in an entirely different capacity. Alice was powerful because she represented a side in all of us.

But so did Bob. And Beryl. And Simon.

And that’s what made it so impactful.

There wasn’t one big, bad villain, and nor was there a singular hero, and nor, in fact, was there just one victim. It was far more complex than that, far more realistic.

‘Fresh Start’ warned on its programme that it would leave the audience ‘wondering’, and it certainly did. It asked question upon question, each with a multitude of answers: When does a person’s behaviour become ‘abusive’? When does someone become a ‘bully’? Is there a definite line that’s crossed, or is it blurrier than that? Did something or someone drive them to it? Could that journey have been altered, their course changed? Does a person’s past ever excuse their behaviour in the present? Can someone be both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time, even within the course of the same relationship? And how can we tell when someone is hurting? How can we help? Are we always helping when we think we are? And who can we turn to, trust, when the darkness breathes under our own door?

It’s complicated, too complicated to fit into a review, and each individual’s answer would surely differ from the last…but maybe that’s the point.

Because no one person is solely good, or solely bad, and the same can surely be said of these four characters; each one had been shaped by their own lives, their upbringings and careers and personal choices along the way, and it was painfully easy to see why so many people choose not to speak up about domestic violence, and the way that violence permeates the rest of their lives, in one way or another.

It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s tough to break out of it.

‘Fresh Start’ is the kind of play I would love to see again, with the same cast, with a different cast, with some of the roles gender-swapped, with the backstories both expanded and cut…just to see how it would change the audience’s perception of the characters and their circumstances, to see if the judgments passed on them would change.

Congratulations, Origins. Stellar work.

Sixty percent of each ticket was being donated to Break the Cycle CIC, an Island charity that supports survivors of abuse and bullying, helping them to build confidence and feelings of self-worth. A worthy cause indeed.

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