Simplicity can lead you to extraordinary places as this play shows rather brilliantly. 'The Woman Before' asks a question: what would happen if someone you once loved turns up after a long absence claiming that you promised to always love her? That simple question enabled writer Roland Schimmelpfennig to explore the mind of an obsessive, and the clarity resulting from the play's basic premise produces an engrossing and compelling piece of theatre.
Claudia and Frank have been married for 20 years or so and are in the middle of moving house. Only a few of their belongings remain when there's a knock at the door. Romy has returned to find the man who promised, 24 years ago, to 'love her forever' and aims to hold him to it. That poses a problem not only for Frank and his wife but also for their only son, Andi, because Romy is a frighteningly fixated individual who is not going to let go of her obsession without making more than a little fuss. And what a fuss it turns out to be.
Produced on half a shoestring, 'The Woman Before' nevertheless has all the features required of an excellent small-scale production. The set dressing is minimal with just a few packing cases and a cloth covering the stage area, but good use of lighting and sound provide ample eeriness for the piece.
The cast of 5 all give strong and highly believable performances. Philip Allinson as Frank and Anne Bird as Claudia provide suburban domesticity which contrasts effectively with the demure intensity of Natascha Slasten's Romy. Gary Buckley as son Andi and Charlotte Powell as his girlfriend Tina bring youthful playfulness to the setting which in some ways echoes the previous love affair between Frank and Romy.
Juliane Von Sivers' taught and inventive direction embraces all possibilities. Neat use of video projection, atmospheric music and sound effects are combined in a kind of dark homeliness that is unsettling as well as comedic. The small acting area is exploited to full advantage and the economical pacing sustains the twists and turns in the plot without feeling hurried. Though I won't reveal the details, there's a strangulation scene which is exceptionally realistic – presumably orchestrated by fight director Ronin Traynor.
My only reservation about 'The Woman Before' is the ending. The build-up to the climax is tense and gripping. But the realisation of the denouement falls a little short of what the build-up had led us to expect. However, given the limited space and budget, it's hard to see what else might have been done to make it more effective.
The intimate Brockley Jack Theatre might be a little way from the West End (a 15 minute train ride from London Bridge) but it has all the qualities of a venue that cares about what it does and how it does it. The pub sports what must be the cleanest and best-designed toilets that I have ever seen in a pub in the UK, and the theatre is comfortable and thoughtfully maintained. Many West End theatres could learn a thing or two about a thing or two from this management.
I seldom see a production that I'd like to see again, but with 'The Woman Before' I would have happily sat through the whole thing again immediately. A mesmerising and gripping production that's well-worth a visit.