This bold and disturbing new play at the Hampstead Theatre leans in hard on structural inequalities and past injustices echoing down through the decades. It’s set in a Kentucky town in both the 1970s and 1990s, and it revolves around two siblings, Jude and her younger brother Acton, a tight pair made tighter in their youth by their parents’ misfortune: their father died in an industrial accident and their mother struggles to make ends meet. Here, time is no healer: the years between the play’s two time periods have clearly been ones of festering pain and grief, although it’s left largely to us to fill in the gaps. Both chapters unfold in the wake of a fatal tragedy, the first claiming the father, the second Anton. Jude lives on. But at what cost?
In his school years, Acton (Stanley Morgan) had an uneasy friendship – marked by bullying – with wealthy Hoke and his sidekick Frayne. Two decades later, the boys, now men, are back in Jude’s life, attending Anton’s funeral, all three of them nervously avoiding a herd of elephants in the room. Not for long though: the reunion dredges up memories of sexual abuse at Jude’s seventeenth birthday party – and questions of consent and collusion involving all four characters. The soul of the play is Jude, played in the early years by Shannon Tarbet and in the later years by Jasmine Blackborow. Her energetic resilience is both endearing and discomforting.
The play’s themes are daring, but its ambition outweighs writer Naomi Wallace and director Sarah Frankcom’s abilities to meet them with a production that feels complete and satisfying. Wallace is admirably interested in economic destiny: how life, to an extent, happens to us according to the cards we’re dealt. But there’s precise agency involved in her story too, especially around the rape at the play’s heart, and it’s in these scenes that too many attitudes and details ring untrue. ‘The Breach’ meets far-too-real trauma with a distancing poetic tone and a pared-down staging that drains too much of the life out of the troubled events it presents. It’s a flawed play, then, but it has a haunting effect that lingers.