Review: Smack That (A Conversation), Ovalhouse

Beverly’s having a party, and everyone’s invited. There’s food, drink, balloons, party poppers, games and music – everything you could possibly want. Only soon it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary party.

Created and choreographed by Rhiannon Faith, who doesn’t shy away from dealing with sensitive issues, Smack That (A Conversation) is an immersive and timely piece of theatre raising awareness of domestic abuse – physical and psychological – performed by real-life survivors of domestic violence – three professional dancers and three non-professional. These six ‘Bevs’ (in tribute to Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’) – dressed identically in sparkly silver dresses and platinum wigs – are on hand to greet guests as they enter the room, show them to their seats and hand out popcorn, cider and a gift for later, as well as give them a nickname for the evening (mine was ‘Notebook Bev’ for obvious reasons). Once the ground rules are set to ensure everyone is as comfortable as possible, the party gets underway and in among the music, dancing, balloon popping and games galore, the women share stories of their time with Voldemort – “he who must not be named” – revealing their shared experiences of being abused, sexually assaulted, isolated and humiliated.

Then the party games commence, and audience members are encouraged (but not required) to participate. First up is a game of two choices – cheese and onion or salt and vinegar, Danny Dyer or Tom Hardy…It soon becomes cheekier – lights on or lights off, missionary or doggy…and where Smack That really excels is with its shift in tone – lighthearted party games soon give way to the shocking reality of domestic abuse. A seemingly innocent game of Never Have I Ever moves from spilling red wine on a carpet at a party, to being threatened with a knife and being forced to take drugs, and it’s soon apparent what these women – and some audience members too – have been forced to endure. During a game of pass the parcel layers of wrapping are stripped away to reveal not only sweets, but shocking statistics on domestic abuse, like the terrible fact that on average a woman is assaulted 35 times before she receives help. The Bevs sit among members of the audience during the games, a reminder that they’re just regular people and that this could happen to anyone, especially with grim statistics revealing that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. They refill drinks, propose toasts to the government for cutting funds to refuges, to Donald Trump, Chris Brown and to Russia for decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence.

Despite the lighter, more playful moments nothing is trivialised, and they instead help to break the tension and allow the audience time to process what they’ve heard. The theatre becomes a safe space, both for the audience and performers. They constantly check in with one another after revealing snippets of their stories, thank audience members who participate, the gift boxes they hand out contain not only sweets but the help on where to seek advice, and there’s support available after the show should anyone wish to talk about what they’ve just seen.

The games and brave recollections are linked by powerful and energetic dance sequences representing their strength and suffering, which are filled with emotion. Three performers leap around the space to Molly O’Brien’s score, tumble to the ground, balance, shudder, shake and scream. There’s a particularly affecting sequence involving one Bev shoving another’s face into a Victoria sponge repeatedly, until all that’s left is crumbs.

All six performers were at one time controlled by manipulative men and tried to escape their situation many times before they were able to do so. The show focuses on the resilience of these women and other female victims (although it acknowledges this can and does happen to men). Above all it’s a story of hope – these women survived, they went on to rebuild their lives from the rubble and are able to share their stories to help others. A brave and empowering production, Smack That (A Conversation) is a powerful, honest and raw account of domestic violence, and an essential and unforgettable watch.

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Smack That (A Conversation) is playing at the Ovalhouse until 16th March.

Photo credit: Foteini

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