“I forgive you, because I love you so much”
Not many plays are set in Northampton and though Chris Dunkley’s The Soft of her Palm takes place there, it is more a signifier of ‘everytown’ rather than tied to this specific location. For domestic violence – the subject of this disturbingly intense and thought-provoking 80 minute play – can happen to anyone, anywhere. The show opens in the present day where Sarah has crashed her car outside Phil’s house, she steps inside to recover but it soon becomes apparent that this is no accidental meeting – the pair know each other only too well and their relationship emerges to be a highly toxic and horrifically violent one.
Dunkley then rewinds scene by scene over the course of a year to trace how we have gotten to this place but at each step, the playwright confounds our expectations and prejudices as we edge ever closer to a fuller understanding of the truth. And that truth is essentially that these are two damaged individuals, equally adept at manipulation: struggling chef Phil is frustrated by his business dealings and his inability to communicate, Sarah’s psychology is deeply troubled and rooted in past insecurities, neither one is above shamelessly putting Sarah’s young daughter Poppy in the frontline of their battles, neither one seems truly able to move on from the other, with destructive consequences.
Perhaps appropriately for a play about domestic violence, there’s a persistent feeling of unease, but it is one which lingers a little too long. The weighting of the writing, as allegiances are pulled one way and then the other, is so thoroughly ambiguous that it leaves no doubt as to the mutually self-destructive capacities of both parties, but also feels a little frustrating as it means certain of the more interesting issues are left unexplored. Dunkley does neatly convey the complexity of such situations though, the shame that accompanies so many victims and resisting the impulse to provide any easy answers, whilst still imbuing his prose with a series of human images and connections that remind us of just how easily this could be someone we know.
Tilly Gaunt burns with the shortest of fuses as the neurotic Sarah, dancing ever closer to the flame and seeming not to care if she gets burned; Simon Bubb’s Phil is a more contained personality whose ambiguity swerves from personable to threatening and back again in the blink of an eye; and Siubhan Harrison provides good support as Phil’s friend Lucy, a missed opportunity to have avoided so much crisis. Ola Ince directs with a punchy intensity in Daniel Harvey’s well-dressed set, bringing interest even into the scene changes as Max Pappenheim’s sound design builds a tense mood into which the play unravels its unsettling journey.