There is a stillness that descends over a theatre audience when they are gripped and fidgeting when they aren't. In the first half of The Breach at Hampstead Theatre, the audience was fidgeting.
Naomi Wallace's play is a slow burn. And this is despite it switching between younger and older versions of the same characters so that you know some of what ultimately happens, just not what triggered it. That comes in the second half and is where it gets interesting.
The younger versions of the characters inhabit 1977. Jude (Shannon Tarbet) is very protective of her brother Acton (Stanley Morgan), who is very clever but bullied for his perceived strangeness. Their mother is struggling to pay the bills after the death of their father in an industrial accident.
Frayne (Charlie Beck) and Hoke (Alfie Jones) both come from comfortable backgrounds. They want Acton's help with their school work and agree to keep the bullies at bay in return.
Jude is suspicious and doesn't brook any nonsense. Despite this, Frayne, Hoke and Acton form a tight but toxic friendship of dependency and power. They begin to challenge each other to make sacrifices to prove their loyalty.
These are sacrifices with increasingly dark consequences.
The intertwining timeline is set in 1991. Jude (Jasmine Blackborow), Frayne (Douggie McMeekin) and Hoke (Tom Lewis) have gathered for Acton's funeral.
As the narrative switches back and forth, a picture emerges of what has happened in the intervening years leading up to a particular incident which left an indelible mark on all of them.
But when that revelation comes, it doesn't feel as shocking as it should. It is in part because of the slow unravelling setup in the first half. It's also quite a static play with a fairly plain stage and very few props.
And yet, despite all the standing and talking, it doesn't feel like you really get under the skin of the characters.
Where the second half grips is in how recollections of what happened are turned on their head; Jude's memories give her agency over the situation, but when that is challenged, her world shifts.
It forces a re-evaluation of the relationships and events that have preceded it but ultimately generates more questions.
The Breach is a play about consent, social class and toxic power dynamics. As it becomes more interesting, it also becomes more perplexing.
I'm giving The Breach ⭐️⭐️⭐️.
The Breach, Hampstead Theatre
Written by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Sarah Francom
Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an interval.
Booking until 4 June, see the Hampstead Theatre website for more details and tickets.