“The Breach” – Hampstead Theatre

Neil Dowden in north London

Although based in the UK for many years, Naomi Wallace returns to her roots with her disturbing but powerful new play The Breach. It is the first of a trilogy set among different communities in Kentucky. Alternating between 1977 and 1991, The Breach shows the traumatic after-effects of an episode of sexual violence on a group of white teenagers in Louisville as they become adults. As well as being a coming-of-age drama, it is also an indictment of social inequality where poorer people are exploited by the rich.

 

Shannon Tarbet and Stanley Morgan. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

 

Times are tough for the Diggs family in 1977. After their father has died in a work accident, with their mother now having to do two jobs to pay the bills, 16-year-old Jude takes on extra responsibility by working evenings and weekends while still at school, as well as looking after her asthmatic 13-year-old brother Acton. He has formed a “club” with two older boys, Hoke and Frayne, who agree to protect him from bullying at school in return for his helping them with coursework. Jude agrees to them using the Diggs’ basement as a headquarters for ten bucks a week, not knowing how toxic teenage masculinity will lead to disastrous consequences for the future lives of them all.

We see how the adolescent boys’ ritualistic games of “Top My Love” – involving personal sacrifices that supposedly prove their commitment to their “alliance” – spiral out of control. Jude also makes a momentous sacrifice on the night of her 17th birthday to try to keep her family together, but which turns out to have the opposite effect. With the story featuring rape and suicide, The Breach is not an easy watch, though it is a compelling drama about various breaches of trust.

 

Background Shannon Tarbet, foreground Jasmine Blackborow.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.

 

Essentially a non-naturalistic playwright, Wallace writes with persuasive muscular poetry but some of the events described seem overly contrived while the characters’ emotional reactions sometimes fail to convince. There is a recurring game played by Jude and Acton in which, while rolling over in slow motion along the stage, they imagine what their father might have been thinking as he fell to his death – but although the idea of fantasy as an escape route for shared grief is interesting the dark humour they use jars.

As a political activist and writer, Wallace always presents her characters in the context of the society in which they live and the particular pressures it exerts especially on the disadvantaged. The Breach contains references to the recently ended Vietnam War (Frayne’s older brother is a disabled Vietnam veteran) and the post-Watergate disgraced Richard Nixon, but these seem incidental. The main social critique is that Jude and Acton’s father was killed due to lax health and safety (with Hoke’s father’s corporation being responsible), putting a great strain on their family, while the wealth-inheriting Hoke who takes over a health insurance company gets to “pull strings”, giving him power over the others. But the political dimension is very much in the background here.

 

Stanley Morgan and Shannon Tarbet. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Sarah Frankcom’s stripped-back, intense production puts the focus very much on the confrontations between the characters as performed by a young cast. Naomi Dawson’s minimalist set is based on a raked stage which adds an edginess to the action, while Rick Fisher’s clever lighting effects signal the 14-year jumps in time.

Shannon Tarbet is a forceful presence as the younger, combative Jude forced to grow up too quickly, while Jasmine Blackborow also impresses as the scarred but hard-bitten older Jude, a survivor keeping a tight grip on her emotions. Alfie Jones’s boastful but dissatisfied teenage Hoke contrasts with Tom Lewis’s complacent adult Hoke, now a top executive and family man who nonetheless feels a counterfeit. Charlie Beck plays his laddish sidekick Frayne as a youngster, while Douggie McMeekin’s guilt-ridden older Frayne is incapable of a having a functional relationship with a woman. And Stanley Morgan makes a confident professional stage debut as the academically talented but emotionally vulnerable Acton who fatally confuses where his true loyalties lie.