Harry Bignell reviews Smack That at the Ovalhouse Theatre.
Taking a harrowing personal experience and turning it into a performance designed to spread a message, offer solidarity and give voice to an often silenced demographic is incredibly admirable; for this I have the utmost respect for the all-female cast of Smack That. This group of actors explore the theme of domestic violence in a performance that is autobiographical in varying degrees. They use this platform to raise awareness of an issue affecting an estimated 2 million adults per year in the UK; a highly commendable endeavor.
The quirky set has the audience sitting in a circle around a centre stage strewn with streamers and balloons as the actors, all playing a character referred to as Bev, juxtapose periods of emotional dialogue and intense physical theatre with ‘party’ scenes.
The issue I found in the performance was that the message the play hopes to deliver felt unsure of its intended recipient. Sections of this performance are seemingly directed at abuse sufferers, inviting them to share their personal and intimate experiences in a safe space; while others seem targeted at a more ignorant audience , with the tragic statistics related to domestic violence being hammered home.
In further tangents, the play makes sporadic and unelaborated upon political references to Theresa May’s governmental policy towards abuse and then lists high profile male offenders which again confused the plays objectives. Is it a show of solidarity with the survivors of abuse? An educational piece? Or call to political action? There is nothing to say that a performance cannot be all three, but personally, I found the production too disjointed to square the circle.
There is further confusion around whether each actor is playing a different iteration of the same person – Bev – depicting the sometimes solitary reality of domestic abuse, splintering of identity, and internal conflict that can accompany this. Alternatively are they different women, with different experiences, who simply share a name and have joined together to establish a support network. It is not clear if abuse anonymizes the protagonists in this way, or unites them.
This play sadly tries to do a little too much and resultantly does little to communicate its message with any real clarity.
In what were the strongest moments of Smack That, the audience are invited to play party style games such as Would You Rather or Never Have I Ever. These games take a darker turn when the statements change from ‘never have I ever double dipped a chip’ to ‘never have I ever woken up with a man inside me’ or ‘had a knife held to my throat’. This is a very humbling experience as audience members either stand to acknowledge their shared experience or remain seated if they have not or do not feel comfortable taking part. These are the sections of this play that offer the most connectivity, moments in which the immersive nature of the performance moves to the fore, and shift the focus to the audience. This heightened emphasis on the individual arrives with an acute awareness of your proximity to your neighbors own experiences, and your own voluntarily vulnerability in sharing your own disclosures.
Sadly, however, these striking moments are obfuscated by the ambiguity in intended audience and lengthy sections of unnecessary dance sequences. The acting is not always completely confident across the cast, but the emotion comes through powerfully, due perhaps to the individual experiences of cast members.
Issues with execution and script aside, tackling a difficult subject such as this is very commendable and the cast do so with sensitivity and sincerity.