Last year writer and actor Abigail Hood stunned audiences with Dangling, a shocking and deeply moving play about a father’s inability to cope with the disappearance of his teenage daughter.
She’s had another stab at the drama, deleting characters, changing names, refining scenes and even re-titling the piece but, make no mistake, Spiral, which has just opened at London’s Park Theatre, is every bit as compelling and disturbing.
It makes for very uneasy watching. On the one hand her story-telling is gritty and brave but there’s a strand which is deeply exploitative with a terrified young girl tortured and maimed.
Watching a young woman violently abused at the hands of her sadistic and controlling boyfriend for the purposes of theatrical entertainment would be condemned if it had been written by a man.
That it has been written by a woman who has explored the concept before and now expands it, is, at the very least, provocative.
This adaptation of Dangling feels a little like a work in progress with two strong stories sitting uncomfortably together, both jockeying for pole position.
We have the story of Tom and Gill, a couple of teachers whose daughter, Sophie, inexplicably disappeared six months earlier.
Both find it impossible to comprehend why she has gone and the uncertainty over whether she went of her own accord – and why – or if she’s lying dead in a ditch – or worse, being held captive somewhere – is sheer torture for them.
Gill tries to get on with her life but has now factored in a daily visit to church to pray for her daughter’s safe return.
Tom, however, hires the services of an escort, orders her to dress up as schoolgirl Sophie, and re-enacts the day-to-day trivia between dads and daughters, in a bid to cope with the pain.
And then there is the story of Leah (Hood), the escort, whose vile and manipulative boyfriend, Mark, gets a kick from hearing every detail of her “dates” and then crudely sniffs her all over (yes, that’s all over) to discover whether she’s had sex with the clients.
Despite being physically and mentally abused by him Leah clings to their relationship because it’s all she’s got.
Both threads are well played although I found the short scenes, broken with intrusive music while set changes take place, ruined the flow of the narrative.
However, should Hood take a third run at the story, I think she needs to decide whose strand is the more important.
Tracey Wilkinson’s Gill isn’t fleshed out enough and is underused. Gill is astounded at her husband’s behaviour and, at one point, fears that he may have sexually abused their daughter, causing her to flee.
They are as estranged as a couple can be. Unable to talk, understand and support each other.
Meanwhile Tom (Adam Morris) appears benign, respectable and upright, but you can’t shake the feeling that he’s not being entirely honest – or is that just cynical old me?
He uses Leah as a surrogate daughter, running through their old rituals, lavishing care and love on her because he perhaps feels guilty at not doing enough for Sophie. Who should take the blame for her disappearance? Anyone?
Every parent would understand their dilemma and empathise with their predicament. It’s one thing to have a blazing row and a teen to go off in a strop but it’s another when she sets out for school and never arrives. You can imagine every scenario running through their heads.
Kevin Tomlinson sends shivers down your spine as boyfriend Mark. He’s threatening, bullying and darkly menacing (I’ll never look at a Curly Wurly in the same way again).
Tomlinson, also co-director and responsible for the play’s dramaturge, is riveting. Mark is a powder-keg waiting to explode at any second should Leah not say or do the right thing.
He’s a psychotic savage and Hood gives him full range to express his sadism. But, at times, his outstanding, unhinged performance overwhelms the plot.
Spiral is bleak and profoundly dark, and, at times, almost too distressing to watch but, there’s no doubting its sincerity.
Spiral runs at the Park Theatre until September 1.
Abigail Hood takes another look at her compelling missing child drama, Dangling. This new adaptation, now called Spiral, is equally bleak and disturbing.