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You can’t have it all at the same time. This fact of life should be obvious but in this day and age we are expected to raise our children, keep our partner, look amazing and manage our home while the whole time advancing our careers: beware the woman who lets any of these balls fall. When we meet struggling artist Rob (Darren Douglas) and his stylist wife Ali (Shireen Farkhoy), they are having an all-too-familiar argument. Who’s going to pick up their two-year old son Finn from nursery? Who’s going to be able to work today? Why can’t both do what they want? Will something have to give?
This start is purposefully generic; even the set is plain. We see a couple of large white boxes, one of which turns into a bed when a white duvet is thrown on it, a laundry basket, some toys. Sharon Raizada takes a good marriage, puts it in a carriage with no seat belts, and pushes it down the London rollercoaster (but this could be in any magnet city for the ambitious) and we are invited for the ride. Director Juliet Knight builds up the thrill factor as Rob and Ali meet Shoreditch gallery owners Suzanne (Viss Elliot Safavi) and Nirjay (Robert Mountford), the corrupting couple par excellence with Nirjay in the role of what Hemingway used to call the “pilot fish” and Suzanne as the “rich”.
Bitched doesn’t tell a new story but the best stories never are because they are the ones that still trip us up. We are still far from having evolved our way out of this one. This is Sharon Raizada’s – a married mother of two young children – second full length play; the first one, Black-i, was performed in 2010 at the Oval House Theatre. There again she set up a chance encounter between a young, hard-up (in this case first generation) Asian immigrant and a rich posh English rose with disastrous consequences. Here she gives us another tale of power, sex and temptation – but what makes Bitched such a joy is that what is at stake here is nothing less than love. Rob and Ali truly love each other and their little son Finn. There is no ambiguity here and the play unfolds with a clarity that is often missing from tales of marital breakdown.
Shireen Farkhoy’s loyal, honest Ali resonates as a contemporary young woman who wants to be a good wife and mother and struggles to keep her identity as a professional, to hang on to her “earning power”. There is a great scene in the first half where the older, more sophisticated Suzanne warns Ali about the dangers of “giving in to kiddie oblivion.” If she lets herself become a “martyr” to the cause, she tells her, “don’t be sorry in twenty years time and wonder where your life’s gone.” “It’s the seven ages of woman: babe, sulk, slag, bitch, scold, harridan, hag. Unless you fight.”
Darren Douglas gives Rob a raw physicality that keeps us on edge. The scene where Robert Mountford’s fractured but posturing Nirjay meets Rob feels more like the taming of a wild animal than an interview. In reality. it is the breaking of Rob’s spirit – a small price to pay? He signs the contract with the gallery.
I didn’t even notice there was no interval.
Rob goes from a hard-working husband who feels lucky to have such a family to a narcissistic workaholic. For a while it still looks like Suzanne and Nirjay are sitting on something ugly but real, that the world only belongs to the famous and rich. And they’ve identified Rob as one of their own. Suzanne is whispering in his ear while Ali, now pregnant with number two, is trying desperately to hang on.
And then we find out that what Suzanne and Nirjay are really sitting on. And we know we are heading for a disaster: Rob and Ali have everything to lose but it’s too late. The tension builds up until it almost literally explodes on stage.
Everybody gets “bitched” here, whether by each other or by accident. That’s not what matters. It’s how you deal with it. Honesty, integrity, character matter. The last thing we see before the stage turns dark is a radiant Ali at work with her baby in a sling. And you know she’ll have it all, just not at the same time.
Bitched continues at the Tristan Bates Theatre until Sat Nov 11. Tickets are £14 (£10 concessions).