Produced by No Offence Theatre, the enterprising company that he founded with Nastazja Somers, Bj McNeill’s Torn Apart (dissolution) is back at Theatre N16 following a preview period at the venue last year and a run at this year’s Brighton Fringe. It’s a most welcome return, for this is a resonant and rewarding piece that fully deserves wider exposure.
Three decades-spanning love stories – two of them transnational – unfold and interweave over 75 minutes, each taking place in a different bedroom. In West Germany in the early 1980s, a Polish student, Alina (Somers herself) is involved in an affair with an American soldier (Simon Donohue), their encounter at once highly specific yet also reflecting wider tensions and attractions between East and West at this time.
In London in the late 1990s, Casey (Christina Baston), an Australian backpacker, has hooked up with Elliott (Elliott Rogers), an intense young chef, but the progress of their partnership seems stymied by the imminent expiration of Casey’s visa, which, as she wryly notes, has given her enough time to make a life in the UK but not enough time to stay (not that she’s entirely sure that she wants to, anyway).
In 2014, meanwhile, the affluent Holly (Sarah Hastings) has left her husband and child to be with Erica (Monty Leigh), but the relationship is challenged by, among other things, Holly’s conflicted feelings and some distressing news from Erica.
Concealing and disclosing as it elegantly develops its complementary triple time-line of liaisons, the structure of Torn Apart (dissolution) recalls works as diverse as Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours and, especially, Tim Kirkman’s wonderful (and sadly under-seen) 2005 film Loggerheads, in which the fallout of a decision forced upon a young woman reverberates over three interwoven time periods some years later.
Despite such resonances, McNeill’s play doesn’t feel derivative, though. Rather, it offers an astute look at relationships that are simultaneously enabled and compromised by forces both external and internal. With an excellent set by Szymon Ruszczewski that boldly evokes the cage of circumstances that confine and inhibit the characters (and the “cage” of coupledom itself, perhaps) the play adds up to an insightful exploration of the factors that both unite and divide lovers.
The sensibility of the piece is notably different to that of much contemporary British work for the stage: while not without moments of levity, McNeill’s text maintains a seriousness of intent and approach that’s bracing, refreshing. Whether it’s Somers’s outspoken Alina reflecting on her father's fecklessness and her mother’s conservative attitudes, or Hastings’s Holly worrying that her abandonment of her child is a repetition of her own father’s behaviour, this is a play that’s profoundly concerned with parental legacy, and the way in which mothers and fathers, whether known or unknown, may condition and affect the lives of their children.
As director, McNeill keeps the production fluid and dynamic: the sharply rhythmed scenes sometimes overlap, with characters appearing as ghostly presences in the other strands. (Only the pivotal penultimate sequence could benefit from a little more clarity and definition.) And it’s not all talk, either: music (including Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You” and Sia's “Elastic Heart”) is judiciously employed throughout, and the piece is punctuated by economical yet expressive moments of movement that brilliantly evoke the characters’ inner lives and emotional states.
The accomplished cast of six work together wonderfully well, delivering brave and exposing performances that create vivid individual impressions while also forming a cohesive collective. Sensitive to the caring and the cruelty that takes place in relationships, unsentimental yet also uncynical, McNeill and his collaborators have crafted an intense and intimate production of the kind of play that you see pieces of yourself in.
Torn Apart (dissolution) is booking at Theatre N16 until 30 September. Further information here.