Exiting the Omnibus Theatre, the audience brims with emotion. Some do not move immediately, still under the spell. By the door, a woman says “That poor girl just made mistake after mistake” and I fight the urge to cry “She was a victim! This is about so much more!” That is the power of Sophie Ellerby’s debut play and Eve Austin’s heartrending portrayal of Bex; how invested we become.
90 minutes prior, we are greeted with Minglu Wang’s dynamic stage design. The white background is streaked with paint. In the foreground, vast wire structures like pencil sketches form the outline of… a caravan!? I grab my girlfriend’s leg “I’ve seen this before!”
Coincidentally I had the pleasure of watching Lit at High Tide Festival 2017. Back then, without extensive staging, the audience had still been moved to their feet. Every choice made since has elevated an already outstanding script and cast.
This is not a story of empowerment, revenge, or justice. It is about the systematic exploitation of vulnerable women, of damaged people looking for healing in each other but always missing the mark. The story is framed retrospectively as a fairy tale Bex tells her newborn daughter so we witness her downfall in her own terms.
Austin is captivating as Bex, a 14-year-old foster child from Nottingham, with a crude humour, flirtatiousness and mischievous twinkle in her eye, yet there is also an inherent mistrust of authority figures and those who offer her love. A damaged young girl hides behind a wild-child facade. Bex and her mentally fragile foster mother Sylvia (Maxine Finch) share some comical and affectionate moments as an uneasy trust grows between them, yet the threat of another abandonment is never far behind. “If I’m so special” she sobs, screaming herself hoarse “why does everybody leave?”
Bex is not an obvious friend for the “nerdy” and socially awkward Ruth (Tiger Cohen-Towell) who favours books over teenage rebellion, yet they both recognise belonging that they have never found elsewhere.
Teenage years are characterised by frantic searching for an identity yet throughout the show as Bex changes between a school uniform, party clothes, and a hospital gown, we see identities thrust upon her. She is a truanting schoolgirl, seductive young woman, careless mother, but never just a child. We watch with mounting dread as her internalised betrayal spirals into increasingly self-destructive behaviour, especially concerning the men in her life.
Her boyfriend Dylan (Josh Barrow) occupies the restless cusp between childhood and adulthood. His older brother Lee (Kieran Hardcastle) bristles with toxic masculine energy. He is physically imposing, and brings deep discomfort to other characters. Every woman has met a Lee.
The issues covered in Lit are pertinent to contemporary discussion: classism, mental health, revenge porn, rape, mothers in the penal system, and even failures of the foster system. Every failed attempt in Lit to find a meaningful, loving relationship is a greater sting than the last.
Scenes end with an eruption of Hip Hop music. The scenery bursts into neon colours as title cards cast shadows onto the wall. The two halves of the caravan are manoeuvred around the stage and Bex weaves between them. Nothing is tied down showing her lack of stable home. Some transitions take a little too long severing the flow of the action.
The play surges towards its gut-wrenching conclusion and we watch every nightmarish detail. Lit does not give us the payoff of defying the odds; only the bleak hope that the next generation will end the cycle of violence and pain. We consider how we are victims of our upbringing, long after lights down.
Lit played at the Omnibus Theatre until 21 September. For more information, visit the Omnibus Theatre website.