Writer: Katherine Chandler
Director: Francesca Goodridge
Hayley (Danielle Bird) is a 30-something waitress with a flair for fun, she appreciates the beauty around her, where others might not. On one shift, in walks Carl (Daniel Hawksford), chiselled, defined, and with bags of charm… he metaphorically whisks Hayley off her feet and the pair enter a turbulent rollercoaster of a relationship – one that has massive ramifications.
A Pretty Shitty Love is based on the horrific events in 2015 that led up to, and saw 34-year-old Stacey Gwilliam, strangled, buried alive in a hand-dug grave at Caswell Bay, South Wales and left for dead by her then-fiancée Keith Hughes. A sickening event which reverberated around the world. One that left her in an induced coma for 14 days, battling sepsis and multiple organ failure.
Conducting research with Stacey and her family for the basis of the play, writer Katherine Chandler and Director Francesca Goodridge manage to find plenty of light in what otherwise could be a long and dark 70minute piece of theatre. It’s clear that every word is used sparingly, each word having weight and reason, but without sounding convoluted or strained. This is arguably a piece of the most natural-sounding dialogue this reviewer has heard in years. It flows out of Bird and Hawksford’s mouths as if it’s the first time they are saying them. There is a slight edge of breaking the fourth wall, which intricately pulls us into the story and grips us, like a vice.
Both actors are brutal and beautiful in equal measure. Bird is almost ethereal at times (no doubt a clear indication of foreshadowing), but flips between strong independent woman to lost, lonely, and abused with fluidity and ease. Hawksford manages to balance the charm and charisma of Carl, with a subtle level of menace, an element that is always present but not released in full until much later in the piece, a choice that really holds strong. But the play isn’t all about words and the striking performances…
There are so many elements involved that equally captivate and enrich the story with powerful visual and aural layers. Underscoring the whole production is Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s composition, which much like a film, blends seamlessly into proceedings, guiding you through the turmoil the characters face. Lulu Tam’s striking set design of sand, metal and perspex screens, the latter littered with lines from the text (which shows striking bespoke videos designed by Libby Ward), is reminiscent of a fun fair hall of mirrors – a place where we can see multiple warped versions of ourselves but getting out is a struggle and not always possible. Jess Bernberg’s lighting design hides multiple surprises but captures a sense of the ever-increasing foreboding nature of the play.
Goodridge, manages to mould a production which weaves naturalism, physical theatre, with the aesthetic of gig-theatre, three things that arguably shouldn’t work together… but here it’s been done with such precision and confidence that the risk more than pays off. A Pretty Shitty Love is a rare gem that packs a mighty message.
Sadly Stacey Gwilliam (having passed away in 2021) is no longer with us to see such a powerful, profound, and visceral production of her story. One that demands to be seen in as many towns and cities across the UK as possible. While A Pretty Shitty Love is Stacey’s story, the tale of domestic abuse is one that 1000’s of people deal with on a daily basis – and if productions like this help to save just one life then its aim is a mightily successful one.
Runs until 23 July and then at Chapter Arts, Cardiff between 27 – July 2022