Saturday October 1st 2022 at Bread & Roses Theatre, London
Reviewer: Emma Dorfman
Tender Mercies is a one-woman show that presents a promising turnaround for the true crime genre. It doesn’t exploit or use death as a means for continued audience engagement. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Collette Cullen, the playwright, has made a brave and earnest decision to highlight a woman’s life, as opposed to the grisly circumstances behind her death. However, this objective, in this performance, was overshadowed by poor preparation that also threatened to interrupt crucial narrative throughlines.
At the beginning of the play, we meet Mary. Mary (Wendy Fisher) is an Irish hairdresser living in London that is clearly full of stories. Each salon vignette uses a new customer to highlight a turning point in Mary’s life, as she plunges further and further down into a rabbit hole of alcohol addiction and substance abuse. In these bits, we are reminded of fringe theatre’s special powers; a black rolling chair with a plain black vinyl salon apron is suggestive of each customer, and it definitely works. In between these scenes at the salon, short sharp electrical glitches, brought to life by the courtesy of technician Venus Raven, indicate that perhaps something more sinister is involved in this story.
That ‘something sinister’, though, was given away in the very description of the play, where it is written: ‘Inspired by a news headline in a local paper TENDER MERCIES is the story behind “the woman who lay dead in her home for a year” before being discovered by her twin brother’. It seems we have already been informed of the big plot twist before the curtain even goes up.
The foreshadowing via electrical glitches tells us something we already know before it even happens, and, additionally, we are left questioning why these happen in between scenes showing pointed events from both Mary’s childhood and her adult life. What connection do these scenes bear to her death, and is there a way to illuminate this connection through another device? Here, image and metaphor might be able to step in to initiate an interesting conversation between Mary’s life and death.
On the other hand, the performance was hardly able to get to this place due to what seemed to be poor preparation. At several points in this performance, the actress forgot lines and sequencing, which warranted her being fed particular lines by the director in the front row. I tried to give the team the benefit of the doubt, but nearly every time, this took me straight out of the narrative.
Moreover, I was unable to see what connections, motifs, or threads might be woven into the text because every time I felt myself land within the piece, I was tossed out by a forgotten line or scene. Obviously, I am not a part of the creative team, and who knows what circumstances could have arisen to create this issue. As an audience member, though, this recurring problem threatened to upend any of the connections– narrative, imagistic, poetic, musical, or otherwise—that I might have experienced.
Tender Mercies has completed its current run at Bread and Roses Theatre but you can check out the theatre’s other listings here.