views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Piece of Silk
The Hope Theatre
18th June 2016

★★★★☆

Heather Coombs, Devesh Patel, Tanya Vital and Samantha Shellie as Mrs P, Sami, Shaz and Dunya

Photography provided by Morgan Fraser PR

You never really know what goes on behind closed doors. Mrs P (Heather Coombs) is a loving mum to Shaz (Tanya Vital) and Dunya (Samantha Shellie), not to mention to boy-next-door Billy (Jack Bence) who she regards as one of her own. When her late husband's other child Sami (Devesh Patel) turns up, Mrs P is first to welcome him into her family, keen for her daughters not to lose the Indian part of their heritage. Sami's desire to look after his sisters seems to come from a place of well-meaning but quickly takes a sinister turn. Piece of Silk is a shocking exploration of how domestic abuse can and does affect people from the most unlikely backgrounds. Mrs P dotes on her children, Billy is a protective pseudo-big brother, Shaz is gobby, strong and confident, and Dunya is rapidly following in her footsteps in that regard. Shaz and Dunya are completely Westernised and they have people who love them looking out for them. They shouldn't be victims of domestic abuse. And yet they are. And it all happens quite convincingly.

Jennie Buckman's script has plenty of sliding doors moments, where one character could plausibly make a different choice which would change the story's outcome dramatically. When Sami announces his intention to look after his half-sisters allowing Mrs P to go on holiday, we can see a struggle in her expression. Although she doesn't want to leave her girls, on the face of it, it's a kind offer and she doesn't want to offend her dead husband's son. We're quietly screaming at Mrs P, desperately wanting her to reject Sami's suggestion. When she accepts, we're instantly gripped with worry and most alarmingly, we can understand why she did so. When Billy doesn't hear from Shaz for a while, despite this lack of constant messaging being out of character, he doesn't push it further. A natural insecurity takes over and he assumes she doesn't want to spend time with him anymore. This play is utterly terrifying because we can understand why no one intervenes despite all the red flags which are so obvious from the other side of the stage.

With the audience sat so close to the action, the temptation to leave our seats and pull Sami away from the girls takes some fighting. This is an incredibly difficult production to sit through, it cleverly pushes all our buttons leaving a profound impact. Shaz is deliberately presented to us as the sort of woman you wouldn't peg for a victim. As a YouTube star, she's not exactly shy and retiring. Piece of Silk reminds us of our vulnerability in a very hard-hitting way, and if it makes just one person hesitate that bit longer when a friend or family member acts out of character, then it's accomplished so much more than simply being a captivating piece of theatre. Despite being mixed race myself, I've aways felt "protected" due to my Western values - the same values that Shaz holds dear and that yet still don't protect her. Sobering stuff.

The cast are all superb. Shellie acts Dunya's anxiety and inability to read people convincingly, giving her character plenty of personality as well as portraying her autistic spectrum disorder accurately. Vital, Coombs and Bence's characters all show a natural fondness for Dunya, accepting her quirks as simply part of who she is and automatically adjusting their behaviour to fit her needs. Billy's role as narrator works well, with his spoken word beautifully melodic rather than forced. As for Patel, it took me quite a long time to calm down and separate out the actor from the character, demonstrating how skilfully he plays the villain. Director Tania Azevedo brings out the emotional depth of Beckman's script, often making us ache and feel sick to our core.

Whilst Vital and Coombs tell Ruby's story with sensitivity and compassion, I'm not sure if the play actually needs this extra subplot. Perhaps the intention is to show that domestic abuse happens across all communities, but it ends up feeling like every woman is a victim. Chloe Aligianni's graceful choreography between scene changes is also performed well and yet feels unnecessary. One of Shaz's shaggy dog tales is woven into the main story, so there's already quite a lot happening without these extra details, no matter how well executed they are.

The ending feels abrupt, leaving us with unanswered questions. In many ways, I left Piece of Silk feeling more vulnerable, however sometimes it's a good thing to be reminded of our own fragility. Relevant, harrowingly and horrifying relatable, this isn't enjoyable theatre, but it's gripping and important.

Piece of Silk ran from 14th June to 2nd July 2016 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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