Review: Theatre: Terms of Abuse Hampstead Theatre, London NW3: Ambitious beginnings

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Theatre: Terms of Abuse

Hampstead Theatre, London NW3

It's unusual to find a programme note explaining what a play is not about, but having grown up a few streets away from Fred and Rosemary West, Jessica Townsend is anxious to point out the entirely fictive nature of her first stage play which concerns the surviving victim of a serial killer.

"Don't worry, we're middle-market," says a cheque-book journalist, placating her fears of having to go into too much detail. Mandy is after the pounds 60,000 for her story of how, as a 15-year-old on the run from a children's home, she escaped death after being violently sexually assaulted by a serial killer.

Townsend is bravely entering emotive territory but she's up against a giant problem. Some people defended the frankly schlocky TV film Holocaust on the grounds that it was moving. Dennis Potter replied that if you couldn't make the murder of six million Jews moving, you shouldn't be in television. The danger of dramatising real-life horrors is that an audience's sympathies are all-too-easily activated the moment the subject is raised.

Through the haltingly structured first half, Terms of Abuse avoids this pitfall. Townsend paints a mostly convincing picture of a tough, sharp- tongued young mother of three who is up against it and sees the money as a means of escape. Intercut with the present, we see dramatised snapshots of her past with her younger self (Emma Bird) experiencing life in the raw. The scene where she sits on the edge of a bath remembering her feckless lover is striking in its effective use of imagery and you begin to think that maybe she will pull it off.

In the second half, however, the flashback doubling is too filmic and then she switches track and fuses the two. As older Mandy reaches crisis point, the two begin tussling with one another but the change of style is too late and too over-explanatory which leaves our emotions not fully engaged in what should be the climactic finale.

She tosses in witty phrases which pull you up short - escaping to a perfect life is likened to "living in a Ski yoghurt" - but scenes as a whole are schematic. Beneath her laudable attempt to show the whole picture, she has an instinct for theatrical scenes, like the one where Mandy explains her position to her teenage son while he's in the bath. Best of all is the moment when a seemingly benign policeman tries to persuade her to testify by showing her pictures of the innocent victims. We've seen this before in the dynamite sequence from the original Prime Suspect where Helen Mirren did virtually the same thing to the almost implacable Zoe Wanamaker, but Townsend turns the tables with Mandy's observation that the policeman has an erection from the description of the sexual violence. It catches you completely off-guard and you feel the frisson charge through the audience. Sadly, the rest of the play lacks that tension. Despite Suzan Sylvester's gutsy central performance, by the end with its all too obvious music cues, the gap between Townsend's ambition and its theatrical achievement is way too wide.