CW: domestic abuse, femicide
A Pretty Shitty Love opens with a ghostly figure. In a floaty gown, silhouetted by flashes of light, Hayley (Danielle Bird) drifts towards the audience then stands on a chair – arms raised, the lights blinding – she is almost saintly, an apparition of something numinous. Darkness follows. A single light bulb sways, its light straining across a set with its fragmented glass screens – some scrawled over with text, others shimmering under projected lights. By the time Hayley begins her story, dropping the creepy act and addressing the audience directly, we know not to trust the amiable ease or warmth she emanates. This is not a happy story, and nor will it have a happy ending. This show makes no effort to hide its source material or the tragedy to come (anyone who has even glanced the flyer for Katherine Chandler’s A Pretty Shitty Love will know it tells the harrowing true story of a woman strangled and buried alive by her partner). Yet the core strength of Chandler’s script is its insistence on the richness of a life lived amidst difficult circumstances, defying the idea that such violence should overshadow every aspect of a person’s character.
Hayley, we learn, is well accustomed to being let down by the men in her life. Ditching the Havisham garb and appearing in a crop top and skinny jeans, she recounts with gusto a trip taken in childhood with her alcoholic father. Walking through the countryside after a series of bus rides, they are struggling to find a lake. A lake, her father tells her, which has its own legend: that of a woman who emerged from the water and fell in love with a farmer. The farmer was told he could keep the woman so long as she was not ill-treated; if he struck her three times, she would go back to the water. Sure enough, the farmer breaks his promise and the lady returns to the lake. The layers of storytelling here are thick with prolepsis, there is a sense of fate, of the cultural perpetuation of male violence. As a child hearing this story, though, Hayley is more concerned with reassuring her father that she has “faith” they will find the lake he’s promised to take her to (which they never do). It’s one of many stories of Hayley’s childhood scattered throughout the play – from her father leaving (and his ultimate death) to an eating disorder and a neighbour who groomed her. The undefeated optimism Hayley displays in spite of this history adds greater and greater nuance to her resilience and strength.
From this foundation of disappointment, we are taken into Hayley’s adult life working in a café. Danielle Bird is phenomenal throughout and here, as the only actor on stage, can do magical things with space – easily conjuring the atmosphere of a greasy spoon, the bustle of daily life, convincingly embodying Hayley’s role at the centre of it all; a woman who is always life and soul whatever the occasion. It is also here that she first meets Carl (Daniel Hawksford) who appears at the side of stage, high-tech projections causing him to appear glitchy, a humanoid of dark static. Jess Bernberg’s light design is a force of nature throughout the performance, not so much heightening scenes of tension as adding new layers of emotional undercurrent: attraction, manipulation, lust, violence. It proves a natural complement to Lulu Tam’s set and Libby Ward’s use of video: lipstick pink light here, bone white there; implied images showing a sea-wrapped horizon – all refracting across the glass screens Hayley weaves in and out of.
It is Hayley who pursues Carl, remembering him from her school days as one of the popular lads. There is a naturalism to the unfolding scenes of burgeoning romance between them, Chandler’s script making light of the contrast between Carl’s laconicism and Hayley’s exuberance. There is time made, too, for Carl to introduce himself. It would be easy to paint him as straightforwardly villainous, but it is in fact the sparks of humanity which make him more chilling; from his difficulties with an addict brother, to a sense of humour which elicits more than a few laughs from the audience. Yet hidden in the banter and bluster of these earliest scenes are whiffs of the misogyny which fuels the way Carl perceives and interacts with women. By the time Carl has landed himself in prison, a series of letters and jail voicemails both intensify the commitment of Hayley and Carl’s relationship while also causing the first inclinations towards jealousy and control to rear their heads.
Perhaps what Chandler, with the help of director Francesca Goodridge, does best is the smuggling of a rom-com within a tragedy. When first out of jail, in spite of the cloud of dread which hangs over their union, there is genuine spark and romance between Carl and Hayley who “don’t leave the bedroom”. It’s a fact which makes the violence – when it inevitably comes – even more devastating. Movement director Yandass Ndlovu and sound designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite come into their own here. Depiction of male-on-female violence is always tricky to get right and here sound is used to indicate power and aggression with Carl’s voice booming through a mic and Hayley’s pleas for mercy muffled by panes of glass. Rather than show any physical interaction between the two, Carl is positioned above the set where he lists his violent actions – kick, slap, punch – as Hayley writhes and weathers the invisible blows, forced about like a puppet on a string.
The ultimate scene of violence is almost unbearable in its potency. Hayley in the hands of Bird is immensely human, her vulnerability maximised by a sense of disorientation which descends as she is strangled and buried alive on a beach by Carl. Her ultimate survival and the moving tribute to Stacey Gwilliam – who sadly died earlier this year owing to health complications inflicted by her attempted murder in 2015 – is powerful beyond words. It is a gut-wrenching reminder of the two women killed a week by a current or former partner in England and Wales. Yet, the exact point of A Pretty Shitty Love is to move beyond these statistics – to feel this horror on a real, resonant, human level. Stacey was so much more than a number in a database, and the culture which enables toxic misogyny is not apart from our daily lives, but – whether we like it or not – interwoven subtly within it.
Find out more about A Pretty Shitty Love here.