I’m quite proud of the fact that, having spent much of last year going, ‘ooh, I must go to theatres outside Newcastle city centre more often’ and then… not, I’ve managed to get to Laurels three times so far this year. In part, to be fair, this is because it’s an easy sell – a nice jaunt to the coast with a show thrown in? That’s a hell yes from me! In part because the venue is offering a programme of really interesting work, and it’s one I am keen to show my support for.
It’s All in Your Head definitely comes under the category of… well, interesting. I honestly went in not sure what to expect. A play about domestic abuse filtered through… Chicken Run? Um, OK then. But this short, sharply written show handles a difficult subject remarkably effectively for its scale.
Directed with sensitivity by Imogen Banks (with co-director Edwin Johnson), Miles Kinsley’s piece uses the well-worn comic tropes of a beloved movie – overbearing wife and meek and mild husband – to shine a light on the wider problem of how male domestic abuse is treated by the media, and how that treatment filters through to how it is perceived in wider society. The Tweedys are the villains of the movie, after all: who cares if Mrs Tweedy is a tyrant who belittles and bullies her husband? But would we treat that dynamic so casually if those gender roles were reversed?
Although there’s a limit to how much depth and nuance a 45-minute fringe show can bring to such a major issue – and this definitely feels like a fringe show – the piece uses its own comedy to attempt to unpick these harmful tropes. Sarah Bulmer brings a quiet likeability to Willard, who is done with the farm and all its horrors and now lives a gentle, if passive, life. We see how a lifetime of undermining has contorted his once-optimistic nature, and how he is still haunted by both the ghost of his wife (Kinsley, on sneering villain form) and his own actions. The play also has a good feel for the tone of Aardman productions, which it captures well, twisting it to its own purposes.
The show isn’t afraid to lean into both discomfort and contradiction. Mrs Tweedy is still presented as a larger-than-life villain performed by a man in a dress, tapping into a long tradition of men in drag playing bitter old battle-axes stretching from music hall to Les Dawson to panto. (A tradition you could argue is part of the problem, since it positions abusive women as masculine, their victims as emasculated). But when forced into up-close scrutiny – and at Laurels you are never far from the stage – and with a victim we have grown to know, such brutal berating becomes far darker and more malevolent than simply comic fodder.
The design team (who I couldn’t find credit for, sorry – do shout if it’s you!*) do well with the compact space; Willard is surrounded by wire cages, a memory of the past and symbolism for his present, and small touches to evoke longed-for freedom – a model aeroplane representing an abandoned dream – and the straw-covered floor evokes the sense and smell of a farm.
The venue should also be praised for making sure contact details for resources were distributed throughout. (Particularly ManKind, which helps men escape domestic abuse: https://mankind.org.uk/)
It’s All In Your Head runs until the 27th, with tickets starting at a tenner (concessions – standard tickets are £12). You can book tickets here: https://www.laurelswhitley.co.uk/theatre
EDIT: the set was done by the cast and crew, I’m told.