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The Secondary Victim – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Matthew Campling
Director: Matthew Gould
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

With two decades as a therapist under his belt and 10 produced plays to his credit, no-one could accuse Matthew Campling of not knowing his subject for this new play or of not knowing how to write about it. The mystery is why what appears on stage here feels so unconvincing.

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The thoroughly professional demeanour of Susannah Doyle’s Ali belies her inner turmoil. She charges £40 an hour to listen to her clients’ problems and perhaps point them in the direction of a solution, but she is floored when one of them, teenage boy Hugo (Michael Hanratty), accuses her of sexual misconduct – suggestiveness, touching his cheek and running her hand over the lower part of his back. At a time when we all need to be careful about ill-chosen words and gestures, the writer shows us that concerns are magnified many times over when a code of professional ethics is added to the equation.

Ali turns to her colleague Marilyn (Natasha Bain), paying over £40, and Hugo moves on to Jonny (Matt Holt) as his new counsellor, allowing the audience to hear both versions of events. “Good looks can breach our usual defences” Marilyn advises as she prepares for a possible confession of guilt from Ali, underlining the writer’s point that the line between the private individual and the professional one can be very thin.

If Campling intended to create a suspense thriller in which the audience is left guessing which of the two protagonists is telling the truth, he scores an own goal by making Hugo so obnoxious. Vengeful, scheming and possibly schizophrenic, he boasts of having an American book deal lined up if his accusations against Ali are upheld. It beggars belief that even an American publisher would be drawn to such a slight story, but both Campling and Hanratty leave us in no doubt that Hugo is a nasty (if troubled) piece of work and shaping him as so clear a villain so early does not serve the play well.

The play dwells on sub-plots – Ali’s oafish client Teddy (Christopher Laishley) having problems with under-age girls and a Donald Duck tattoo near his private parts; her rocky marriage to Victor (Gary Webster) who is recovering from a heart attack and bankruptcy; and Marilyn’s one night stand with Jonny – none of which gels properly with the main plot. What the play needs is to be more narrowly focussed, sharper and a lot shorter.

In examining the minefield of professional conduct and the boundaries that cannot be crossed, Campling makes his case persuasively that, if recipients of therapy are victims, their therapists are secondary victims. However, in a play weighed down by colourless dialogue and over-plotting, this does not always make gripping drama and Matthew Gould’s in-the-round production often lacks the energy to sell it.

Whether in the flat-footed first act or in the rambling and melodramatic closing scenes, the play is consistently earnest but too contrived to be believed.

Runs until 9 December 2017 | Image: Matthew House

Writer: Matthew Campling Director: Matthew Gould Reviewer: Stephen Bates With two decades as a therapist under his belt and 10 produced plays to his credit, no-one could accuse Matthew Campling of not knowing his subject for this new play or of not knowing how to write about it. The mystery is why what appears on stage here feels so unconvincing. The thoroughly professional demeanour of Susannah Doyle’s Ali belies her inner turmoil. She charges £40 an hour to listen to her clients’ problems and perhaps point them in the direction of a solution, but she is floored when one of…

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Unconvincing

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