Auto-Engrain – King’s Head Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Helena Collins O’Connor

Director: Tabitha Wells

Writer and performer Helena Collins O’Connor describes her one-woman show Auto-Engrain, which explores in visceral detail the experience of being entrapped in an abusive, gaslighting relationship, as semi-autobiographical. For some writers, recounting personal experiences through fictionalised characters provides a valuable safety net: one that establishes a mental barrier between traumatic past events and current lives. Whatever the case here, Auto-Engrain offers a picture of abuse that is chillingly convincing, authentic, deeply intimate, and instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever had a similar experience.

Collins O’Connor’s protagonist Kate, a blunt-speaking, twenty-something, botanist, reveals her story through a series of extended psychotherapy sessions. These are putatively with an unseen counsellor, but in fact the audience here takes the role of therapist. Sat, centre-stage, in the kind of clinic chair in which it is impossible to get comfortable, the character takes us from a comic and endearing opening meeting at a speed-dating bar to somewhere very much darker.

The man she encounters is handsome, funny, and great in bed. Initially anyway, he is just what every woman wants. What he subsequently turns out to be is a monster who throws chicken bones at his terrified girlfriend, burns her arm with a cigarette (he was aiming at her chest but missed), and squeezes her thumb in a door frame so severely it requires plastic surgery to fix three broken bones. Although packed with comic moments early on, this is often harrowing stuff, delivered in a performance that shows tremendous dignity and strength of purpose.

What chills most are the details. So attuned is Kate to the randomness of her partner’s outbursts that, every bit the scientist, she classifies them into five levels. Starting with the relatively benign look of contempt, these move through caveman grunts, to contemptuous mansplaining, to bitter verbal attack, to the Level Five eruption that indicates unrestrained fury.

Mostly the monologue is live, zipping between the happy honeymoon beginning, to the red flags she misses, through her ongoing questioning of her own sanity, to the challenges she faces dealing with the police. Occasionally, the narration switches to pre-recorded recollections. Presumably this is a directorial ploy to add pace and momentum to the work (which it does). But there is a hint too that some things Kate still finds too hard to say out loud, and that this show is part of one woman’s process of healing.

Collins O’Connor performs the work barefoot, with an occasional switch of costume to hint at mood or situation and a few props (including plants, obviously) to indicate place. Otherwise, the stagecraft, as with Ella Faye-Donley’s direction, is restrained. Both feel entirely right for a story so intimate in nature.

Auto-Engrain is an often funny, but ultimately sobering reminder of how abusive relationships work. It is also a testament to one woman’s ability to recover, thrive and learn to trust again.

Runs until 19 November 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Sobering gaslighting story

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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