Review: The Breach, Hampstead Theatre ★★★★☆

 by Jim Keaveney

It is 1977 and thirteen-year-old Acton (Stanley Morgan) has formed a club in his basement with his older friends, fifteen-year-old Hoke (Alfie Jones) and Frayne (Charlie Beck), who are protecting him from bullies at school. His almost seventeen-year-old sister Jude (Shannon Tarbet) is working in a diner to help pay the bills in a house that frequently has its electric cut-off due to their mother being on strike or working two jobs that don’t quite stretch to cover their needs, their father having died in a construction accident on a site owned by Hoke’s father. Meanwhile, in 1991 the older versions of Jude (Jasmine Blackborow), Hoke (Tom Lewis), and Frayne (Douggie McMeekin) come together and reflect on the events of 1977.

Shannon Tarbet and Stanley Morgan. Photo: Johan Persson.
In speaking about her new play The Breach, Naomi Wallace said that most of her plays are about "intimate relationships, love in its many forms and how social forces divide us from one another," and also suggesting sees her plays as dark comedies.

The former is true; The Breach is undoubtedly a close examination of the intimate relationships, or more accurately toxic relationships, of a small group of Kentucky teenagers and how love brings together families and friendship groups, and divides them, in the intense atmosphere of 1970s America where social inequalities are rife. It is still evident in 1991 that Hoke still holds sway over the others given his social status and wealth. The latter, the idea of this being a dark comedy, doesn't quite meet the mark. Dark? Without doubt. Comedy? There are moments, but the early jokes about sexual assault rightly fall flat. 

Shannon Tarbet. Photo: Johan Persson
The cast is uniformly excellent, though Tarbet and Morgan stand out with their believable sibling relationship with its ups and downs as Jude tries to hold the family together. It is the cast that elevates the play above the average. Wallace’s text is uneven and, for the most part, should be unbelievable. It is the young actors on stage that allow us to suspend our disbelief when we otherwise might feel frustrated with elements of the play and the choices made by Wallace and director Sarah Frankcom.

For example, they put too much weight on the existence of Jude’s child, with enough winks and nudges to suggest that Hoke is the father of her six-year-old daughter as a result of the events in 1977. The main issue with this is that there are fourteen years between the two storylines making the idea entirely implausible.

Douggie McMeekin, Tom Lewis, and Jasmine Blackborow. Photo: Johan Persson.
I was not alone in feeling the direction towards this narrative; ‘So was he the father or not?’ I heard one man ask his companion as they left the auditorium. ‘I think so,’ she replied. There is a sense of unrequired, or perhaps unintended, misdirection, while the plot twists seem telegraphed in advance. Still, this is an excellently acted and often gripping examination of the consequences of inequality and the meaning of consent.

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim



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