Writer: Phoebe Wood
Director: Molly-Rose Curran
If Tess of the d’Urbervilles had told her own story, it might be more like this. The setting happens to be the Dorset coast, evoked by the deceptively soothing sound of the sea. The writer and performer, Phoebe Wood, whose name sounds like a Hardy character, even looks like one, with her abundant auburn hair and plain white blouse. She is not playing herself, however, but a fictional young woman called Mira, whose ‘first time’ was a deeply traumatising experience.
The first line is the title. It is delivered slowly and deliberately, as if Mira has had to practise before she can get the words out. What follows is a personal tale of sexual assault, interwoven with her experience as an onlooker at another family’s tragic loss. The second story, of a child drowned with its grandfather while the helpless parents look on, helps to illustrate the turbulent chaos – grief, outrage, helplessness and shame – that lurks in Mira’s mind. Wood completely engages the audience and, in a calm steady voice that sometimes betrays the anguish beneath, makes Mira utterly believable.
The show’s publicity mentions ‘philosophical ponderings and ramblings’. There is some standard youthful questioning of the meaning of life, but it doesn’t interfere with a tight structure and a coherent narrative. Details of the assault are dropped in gradually, so that it’s only at the end we appreciate it for the crime it was. A broad streak of red paint down one leg is a constant visual reminder that she lost her virginity in a car park, and that the feeling of loss is with her all the time. One of the most emotionally charged moments is near the end, when she says simply ‘I was in my uniform’.
Among the many trigger warnings there is no mention of parental guilt, but there is plenty of it in the play. ‘Why didn’t you protect me?’ Mira yells at her mother – something the mother must ask herself often enough. It’s a feeling mirrored in the parents of the drowned child.
The story is undeniably painful, but there is plenty of charm and humour, although there is usually darkness behind it. After the event Mira yearns for the comfort of the womb – so she pops back in. The abstract womb created by Florence Eckersley is a just a few gauzy curtains, and Mira performs a comic little dance – it’s not silly because it looks carefree when we know she isn’t.
Runs until 15 October 2021