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Manchester theatre reviews

Asylum of Grace

Asylum of Grace by Neil Ely

Directed by Lloyd Eyre-Morgan, at Three Minute Theatre

Reviewed by Simon Belt December 2012


Asylum of Grace is a psychological drama set in the early 1980s, where free spirited Amber (Sian Hill) from Manchester becomes pregnant after copping off with local lad Sean (Joseph Michael Watts) whilst she was working as a waitress in Eastbourne for the summer season. Amber is Catholic so rules out abortion as a viable solution to her predicament, so Sean's ever present and controlling mum Ruth (Janet Bamford) steps up to extend her influence over her wayward son by paying for the ill-fated couple to get married. To complicate matters further, the new lodger in a room downstairs from Amber and Sean's in Ruth's house, Michael (Rob Ward) helps keep the free spirit of independence alive in Amber. This roller coaster of emotional tension is set for a bumpy ride.  


Discussing Asylum of Grace with Neil Ely and Lloyd Eyre-Morgan before rehearsals began, it was clear that they wanted to see the pyschological aspects of interpersonal relationships explored, including the way in which controlling behaviour should be seen as abuse. When Neil said that he'd broken off from writing a comedy to get this play written as it was weighing on his mind and just had to write it. Although there are some aspects of the play that may be a little cathartic and allowed him to reflect on his own previous relationships, I think the play is more than personal and chimes with wider discussions in politics. The ironically named Liberal side of the government coalition is bringing forth an extension to the interpretation of the term abuse to include such things as controlling behaviour.


The professional instigators of changes in the law, to reflect how they've been operating for a while, will see Asylum of Grace as highlighting what they've been saying about abuse for a while. Indeed, the Manchester based charity Independent Choices, were happy to be associated with the play, receiving £1 from each ticket sold and spoke in the interval to applaud how it exposed the impact of controlling behaviour in domestic abuse against women, often instigated when women are pregnant. The play is also going to perform on March 8th as part of international women's week.


Asylum of Grace presents a complex view of the inter-personal relations that don't easily lend themselves legalistic views of right and wrong by third parties. Yes, Sean fits the popular view of the female abusing man - working class fella who treats women as objects to be bedded before moving on to the next, and to tick some extra boxes he's a football fan who drinks beer. Neil though scripted Sean as quite a likeable character, a charmer, and when casting the actor with Lloyd, they selected Joseph Michael Watts who does a brilliant job of warming the audience to him in the equally charming Three Minute Theatre, and ensuring that the waters are muddied a little.


Asylum of Grace is gratifyingly multi-layered, subtle and dynamic in the way characters develop and change. Amber for example, played by Sian Hill wilth delightful sophistication, introduces herself as a feisty and sassy young woman independent enough to be working away from her home city of Manchester as a waitress in Eastbourne. She teasingly taunts, though with the most serious underpinning for the story as a whole, Sean as something of a mummy's boy for still living at home in his mum's house, though he retorts that it's his own place as he's a lodger with his own flat. Sean's dominant mum Ruth, played with scarey determination by Janet Bamford is far from just being the landlady - she's in and out of the flat and the lives of those who spend anytime there with impunity.


The initially feisty and spirited Amber starts to have her wings clipped when she returns to tell Sean that she's pregant after their brief liaison, only to find him liaising with another young woman. Right on cue, Ruth appears to take control of the situation her son has got himself into, helping him to decide on their next steps. Ruth, widdowed a few years earlier, faced with Amber's detrermination to have the baby because of her Catholic religious beliefs, pays for the wedding with the expectation of them contuning to live in her house so that she can ensure Sean and the baby are looked after by her. Amber reluctantly agrees and with her options narrowing, we're introduced to the young man Sean should be - the cosmopolitan and well travelled Michael, compellingly played by Rob Ward. Michael keeps her spirit alive and restores her faith that things would be ok.


Amber's isolation, photo by Josh CroftRuth intervenes on Amber's interest in finding her own solutions to her increasing isolation and encourages her to concentrate on her domestic duties of looking after her husband and his needs. Dreams of a life outside of delivering a healthy grandchild for Ruth to look after fade rapidly and with them the character of Amber diminishes before our eyes, to the nadir point when she is physically and sexually abused by an out of control Sean. To have Ruth take her new born baby from her when returning from hospital with the support of Sean, leaves Amber thinking she should return to Manchester, but she choses to jump from the window and is sectioned to a psychiatric unit.


Introduced as a story of abuse, this develops into a reflection on post-natal depression, and re-assessing the relationships from that angle. In the rather chaotic though controlled environment of the psychiatric unit, Amber begins to rebuild her faith in herself and in relationships with others. Perhaps more important than the formal arrangements of the institution, is the informal relation with Michael who plays the role of her soulmate.


The second half setting in the psychiatric unit may be the focus in the title, but is perhaps less compelling than the first half, though includes some very sharp witted dark humour, and the creation of some valuable space for Amber to rebuild her self respect. Nurse Lenno, played with very soothingly by Maddy Myles is the first person to create a barrier between Amber and her controlling mother-in-law.


Asylum of Grace is a brilliantly written play with deft change in pitch, capturing the dynamics of transition by characters through moments of their lives, and leaves us with a feeling of richness and robustness in being able to deal with what life throws at us. I know Neil interrupted the writing of another play because he was driven to write this play to get it out of his mind, so I just hope the same drive sees itself into the other scripts he writes as there is a deftness of writing here that should get a wider audience.


I am more convinced by this play that the widening scope of abuse in relationships to include controlling behaviour - be that financial, psychological and emotional abuse, is problematic, especially without a full and proper discussion in society about it. The fact that some people in the abuse industry see what they want to see from the play, and selectively ignore the controling behaviour of the mother indicates the way an extension to the law will simply give more professionals more power to meddle in previously intimate and private aspects of our lives. Existing laws are well able to deal with the assault by Sean, and inviting outside agencies to meddle in what goes on in Sean and Amber's lives only seems likey to demean and belittle them further and make matters worse. 


Editor's note: The extension of abuse to include controlling behaviour will be discussed, back at the Three Minute Theatre on Tuesday 19 February - click on this Regulating Relationships link.


Watch the pre-performance interview with Neil and Lloyd (video by Dan Clayton)

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