Iris, Manana Productions Three Minute Theatre, Manchester, 9th-11th October, 2014

Iris is the first play from Manana Productions, a new theatre company founded by writer and actress Rebecca-Clare Evans and director Natalie Kennedy. Based on real events, it is a hard-hitting and unflinching consideration of the effects of domestic violence that is likely to leave you shattered. Unless, that is, you’re made of stone.

When Iris (Evans) is first introduced to Ben (Mark Smalley) it seems she has finally found a cure for a life dominated by work and brightened only by bottles of white wine with her neighbour Sarah (Francesca Kingdon.) They fall instantly in love and within six months, they’re living together. All is well. The first rumblings of discontent sound when Iris accidentally breaks Ben’s football trophy, and we see the sweet and loving facade drop. But this first confrontation is only minor and can be easily brushed aside.

Unfortunately for Iris, it’s not to remain that way. As she gradually falls further in love, we see Ben’s sinister side emerge. With wishes of weddings and babies, he placates his new live-in lover and makes her believe she is to blame for his increasingly violent outbursts. As the first half of the play closes, Iris is cut off from her friends and work, no longer seen in the local pub, and unable to even unburden herself to Sarah, once her best friend and confidante.

Despite the comic relief supplied by pub landlords and locals, the second half of the play quickly escalates into something more harrowing than even the first half suggested. As Evans enters the stage with more and more make-up bruises in every scene, the actress and writer plays the role of the battered and manipulated girlfriend with aplomb. It is much to her credit that the many scenes in which she stands centre stage with tears streaming do not get tedious, but instead ramp up the tension and anxiety.

In the middle of all of this is Craig, played perfectly by Dru Jones. At first seeming like nothing more than the local wannabe ladies man, Craig lusts after Iris every time she enters the pub. But he is also the only person to show real concern for her once things begin to go awry. It seems for a while as though we have a readymade hero who will sweep up all the problems and give the play its expected happy ending. But this doesn’t happen. The writer and director should be commended for avoiding the obvious conclusion, and instead providing a final few scenes that are shocking, brutal, and honest.

This is by no means the easy watch that might have been expected in the jovial surroundings of The Three Minute Theatre, one of Manchester’s many hidden gems. It is a very honest and convincing play. Domestic violence is a subject that can often be presented in cliché and repetition, but there is something very believable in the way it is portrayed here. It’s the manipulation and possessiveness that accompanies the violence that really convinces, and you could tell from the mutterings in the crowd that the Ben character touched a nerve with many. Much praise must go to Smalley, who has probably the most difficult role in the production. It says a lot about his performance that it felt difficult to clap for him during the final bow, given that he had so persuaded us of his evil.

For a first production, there is an awful lot to admire in Iris. There is the occasional misstep with the choices of music and the sometimes cliché-ridden dialogue in the bar room scenes, but these are minor negatives that are far outweighed by the positives in the performances, the direction, and the choreography of the fight scenes. Not a play that will pass as light entertainment in any way, but if you like your drama with a large dose of social realism then this is the play for you. It will be interesting see what Manana Productions can do in the future.

Fran Slater

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