Mercury Theatre Wales
Riverfront Theatre Studio, Newport
“A woman suffers physical assault from a partner on average 35 times before reporting it.” This is the sobering statistic which underlies Bethan Morgan’s play, currently touring South Wales.
Based on conversations with a number of local women who have been affected by the issue, 35 Times is in its second version, having been revised and recast since its first outings in 2017. This time, as well as directing with Jason Marc-Williams, Morgan plays one of the six women whose chilling stories unfold over a perversely upbeat hour.
The venue’s studio space has been transformed, by designer Cerys Lewis, into a social club, complete with the results of craft sessions all over the walls and tables arranged as for a coffee morning. We are promised that, today, we will have a special expert visitor who will instruct us in ballroom dancing—a motif which is set up by a wordless tableau involving a couple whose duet ends in violence.
The ostensible leader of the group is Polly Kilpatrick’s warmly welcoming Jules, who walks with a stick. Gradually, she is joined by her friends, each of whom has a horror story to tell.
There is Morgan’s Claire, whose low-self-esteem is evident in her mousy bearing. Then, Tara, played by Elena Thomas, the youngest of the six, who is from an unspecified ethnic minority, currently resident in a refuge (“the big house”) and near-silent.
In contrast, Francesca Goodridge’s Gemma is loud and brazen, apparently revelling in her femininity, unashamed of being a mother of four—and three marriages down—at the age of twenty-nine. And Olwen Rees’s Glenys, who, in her late sixties, arrives in a ball-gown and seems to be showing signs of confusion.
The tone is set early on when Claire, encouraged to tell her story, takes up a microphone and, shedding her reserve, goes into a version of “Hopelessly Devoted To You”, with the lyrics altered to reflect her experience of marital rape. During this, and the other dance / music interludes, the other actresses abandon their characterisations, becoming a supporting ensemble.
When the visitor arrives—Clêr Stephens’s Val—it becomes clear that there is history between her and Gemma. The younger woman accuses Val, a former neighbour, of having judged her for her short skirts and apparently free-and-easy sexuality.
The truth, however, is even more distressing: Val recognised the signs, physical and otherwise, of the violence which Gemma was suffering since she was, herself, no stranger to the problem. It is this, rather than her choreographic expertise, which has drawn her to this special coffee morning.
Each woman’s story reflects a different facet of domestic abuse: Tara’s poetically presented tale is one of being exploited by her family from a very early age; Glenys’s involves a romance which began in childhood and developed into something twisted and sadistic; Val’s relates to alcohol-fuelled verbal rather than physical violence; and we learn, in a shockingly matter-of-fact moment, how Jules acquired her limp.
While there is a hint of 1970s agit-prop about some of the vignettes which punctuate the drama, soundtracked by ironically deployed pop songs (“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”, “Stand By Your Man”), 35 Times focusses on inter-personal dynamics as the decisive factor in abuse rather than the political or economic; placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators, without demonising an entire gender—abuse of men by women is hinted at in the background of Glenys’s story.
Ultimately, despite the grim and sadly all-too-recognisable subject-matter, 35 Times is an optimistic piece, treating a difficult subject with great sensitivity. All of the women have escaped from their tormentors and found a new freedom—symbolised by dance—as well as new friendships. Thus, the tentatively celebratory climax is well earned.
The plan is for the play to be used as an educational tool; those who find themselves experiencing it as part of the work or school day will find themselves unexpectedly heartened.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith