I didn’t know what to expect from Aftercare. A piece of new writing associated with Fifty Shades of Grey sounded interesting, and indeed it was. Sam (Vanessa Russell) walks onto the obscure, paint-splattered set in her pants looking lost and frightened. We find out that she has engaged in a sexual act with Paul (Basil Stephensen). But she hasn’t got what she wants. She wants to be cut by him. Paul has been abused repeatedly by his ‘girlfriend’ and now advertises himself out to other women who wish for similar fulfilment by engaging in sexually driven pain/pleasure.
This subject matter is a hotbed of contradiction. Some people find it very strange and uncomfortable, whilst others are hooked and want to find out details. I was somewhere in between. Sam and Paul’s relationship is made up of very natural conversation interrupted by strange episodes of power play that give us glimpses of what they have done previously. Examples of this are when Paul throws a blanket over Sam’s head and kisses her forcefully over the top of it against her will. Another is when he gets her to repeat the names he called her during their ‘session’ whilst holding her in her intimate place in a very uncomfortable manner. These moments add tension and also distract me from their relationship. I was intrigued by the severity of the touch rather than the reason behind it.
Russell exits to change and, once dressed, we see a classy, polished version of the masochist. She becomes the woman that will go back to her normal job. But she still hasn’t got her full dose of satisfaction from him. Stephensen yo-yos from affection to dismissal. He is clearly torn by the pain he has suffered and the pain he wishes to inflict.
We see Lisa, played by Claire Louise Amias, in the second scene. We have been fed information about her that tells us she is not going to be conventional. The subtext hangs heavy above both the actors as they discuss Lisa’s spider plant and a postcard. We know that there is more to discuss as Lisa knows he has been entertaining another woman. Stephensen’s eyes are wide and charged as they seek answers from the woman who has complete control over him. Stephensen has an acute vulnerability. We can sense his internal battle with his need for her and his suffering. Lisa refers to their ‘ritual’ and we start to realise how truly strange and abusive their relationship is.
After the interval we see hope for Paul. He is going to embark on a new life with Sam in France. He is going to break ties with Lisa. But he must see her first. Sam wishes to come along too but she has an ulterior motive. During the scene the two actresses snatch moments alone. During these, Sam asks Lisa to cut her. We see a woman who still wants her thrill. Russell maintains a great integrity and lightness when it comes to asking for anything that will feel obscure to the audience. This adds comedy to a piece living mostly in the dark.
“Devotion, sacrifice, pain and blood,” is Lisa’s mantra. She is clearly driven by a religious source and truly believes in what she does. Amias also gives us moments of complete normality as she sits in a “post-apocalyptic” state as she calls it. During a heightened moment, she asks Sam not to take her marking away. Even though she has been sacked from her teaching job, she exclaims “It took me ages!” These moments of lightness are a pleasant surprise and delivered beautifully.
The piece concludes with a union of the three characters. The women form an agreement in which Sam is finally cut with the weapon used in the ritual between Lisa and Paul. We don’t see an escape for any of them. The dark and immersive role play continues, but as a three.
Aftercare is playing at the White Bear Theatre until 27 January. For more information and tickets, see the White Bear Theatre website.