Reading the press release for Jennie Buckman’s new play Piece of Silk at the Hope Theatre, I had the feeling I wasn’t in for an easy night at the theatre. Any show that is, to quote “Inspired by The Arabian Nights and drawing on the shocking stories of women survivors of domestic violence, Piece of Silk proves definitively that ‘storytelling is a matter of life and death’.” is going to be challenging to watch. However, whilst this wasn’t my most comfortable night at the theatre, the show proved to be one of the most riveting I have seen.
Set in present day North london, the story revolves around a woman – only identified as Mum (Heather Coombs) – whose Indian husband has died leaving her with two children, Vlogger Shaz (Tanya Vital) and Dunya (Samantha Shellie) who suffers from Asperger and is on the OCD spectrum. The girls are typical London teenagers and spend a lot of time with best friend Billy (Jack Bence), a friend of the family who has been around since he and Shaz were very young children. Mum wants to go on holiday to see her sister but is worried about leaving her daughters alone. However, the welcome arrival of her step-son Sami (Devesh Patel) on a visit to see his family. Sami promises to look after the girls while Mum is away and so she goes off happy that her daughters are being cared for. Shaz is not really pleased with this as she doesn’t feel she needs a babysitter. She has her job – working at a bridal shop owned by her friend Ruby (Heather Coombs) – and loves hanging around with Billy and she soon falls out with Sami. Sami has two problems really. First he has been brought up in a traditional Indian way, where patriarchy is the governing factor, and second he is keeping a big secret from his family and is determined it will not come out. As Shaz and Sami clash, he responds in the only way he knows how, by using his physical force to achieve domination over the girl. This includes, taking her phone and locking the two sisters in the cellar, from where, Shaz really lives up to her full name by using technology to assist her in telling the world what is happening to her and her sister.
I have to admit I was quite surprised at how much Piece of Silk drew me in. Matilda Marangoni’s traverse set with its screen at one end and movable ‘gates’ at the other works well and Director Tania Azevedo keeps the show moving at such a pace that you don’t realise two hours have gone by at the end. The story itself is horrific and made even more so with the knowledge that it is based on real events following some quite intense, and I would imaging harrowing, research by the author. I did find the ending a bit baffling as it seemed to almost come out of nowhere but that was a minor niggle for me. The best/worst scene to my mind was when Ruby, in a breathtaking performance from Heather Coombs, explains to Shaz why she accepts her husband’s abuse, in such a non emotional matter of fact way that it almost ended up making sense. I also really loved the opening to the show as Billy took on the role of a narrator, filling in the gaps and giving an insight as to how someone as close to the family as his character was, could miss the signs that things were going horribly wrong. Ultimately, this was a very strong cast delivering a difficult story to an, at times stunned audience , and they did it excellently.
Piece of Silk is hard work – domestic violence is never going to be easy to watch, and I was surprised at how much I wanted to intervene at times as the powerful story really gripped me emotionally. By the end, I felt drained and whilst I cannot say I enjoyed the play, I can confirm that this was a really intense night that in ways I really wasn’t expecting, brought home the power of great writing to illustrate and educate.
Piece of Silk
★★★★ “the power of great writing to illustrate and educate”
Guest Review by John Mortis