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The Breach review – a shocking and perplexing tale of abuse and power

By Arifa Akbar
Strangely sleepy … Shannon Tarbet and Alfie Jones in the Breach, Hampstead Theatre.
Strangely sleepy … Shannon Tarbet and Alfie Jones in the Breach, at Hampstead theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

The Breach is packed full of shocks. A story of double rape as well as suicide and a workplace death that leaves a father’s limbs scattered across a construction site, it is told from the point of view of two siblings doing everything they can to hold on to their lives.

Its two time-frames capture the extent of love and sacrifice between tough-cookie Jude (portrayed in the 1970s scenes by Shannon Tarbet and in the 90s by Jasmine Blackborow) and Acton (Stanley Morgan), the bullied younger brother who is dead by the later years.

Scenes alternate between then and now in the same Kentucky town. The siblings are shown to be close and protective, even as Acton forms a bond with two boys whose companionship keeps him safe from school bullies. The dangerous games played in adolescence carry shades of Spring Awakening. In the 90s scenes, we learn how Jude was raped as part of a perverse pact by the boys, presaging a reckoning between Jude and her aggressors.

Except, for all its powerful themes, the reckoning in Naomi Wallace’s play never hits hard enough. There is mystifyingly stolid direction from Sarah Frankcom; actors stand statically on a bare stage and it is hard to fathom the effect this stillness is reaching for. If it is intensity, it does not succeed. The first half feels strangely sleepy. There is a little more movement in the second half but the actors, when they have their confrontations, often look into the distance or at the ground as they speak.

As a play about consent, violation and powerlessness – economic and sexual – its ideas are not conveyed with nearly enough clarity or depth. Jude is both a willingly sacrificial lamb and a defiant hero, refusing to see herself as a victim after the rape. But her psychology is not explained clearly enough and her behaviour raises many unanswered questions. The older Jude seems largely numb or blase, so it is hard to feel her trauma or know her intentions.

Her abusers (played by Douggie McMeekin and Tom Lewis in the later years) plead their own victimhood. They were minors when they raped her and have been haunted by the incident ever since. That argument is under-explored, as well as petulant and distasteful. “You were the hottest girl I ever had. I know it sounds kind of twisted …” says Hoke, and the drama moves on rather than unravelling the impact of these odious words on Jude.

There are many such moments and none of the characters seem backed into a corner, emotionally. If power and class are being explored through the frame of consent, the meaning is oblique.

The play touches on themes of deregulation, blue-collar exploitation and unsafe work environments in Reagan-era America, but does not take any of this much further than the repeated information that Jude and Acton’s father was killed in a fatal fall at work. We hear that their mother is on strike, that Hoke’s family runs the construction firm on which the children’s father died. Where this might have been better metabolised within the play, his death becomes little more than a morbid game for the children.

Wallace’s dialogue has a self-conscious theatricality and lyrical contrivance that sound jarring in the mouths of these characters. The tone is odd too: Hoke speaks of having to get back home for “movie night” while he is in the middle of discussing the rape with Jude. And she herself breaks off, suddenly, while talking about her brother’s death, to muse on her preferred method of suicide. None of it feels true or even ironic, just perplexing.

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