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A scene from Eclipsed at the Gate Theatre, London A scene from Eclipsed at the Gate Theatre, London

Written by Danai Gurira – who also plays the sword-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead – this is a harrowing but humane account of four women living together on a military compound during the Liberian Civil War. The women have all been snatched from their families to serve as the ‘wives’ of an unseen warlord. They refer to themselves by numbers instead of names, burying their half-remembered pasts deep within themselves and waiting to be summoned to his bed. As horrific as this situation is, however, there is hope and humour here too, a family of sorts.

The absent second wife, Maima, has chosen another path. In order to save herself from a life of sexual servitude she has become a soldier, fighting alongside the rebels, killing when needs be, something she presents as an escape route to the youngest of the four. It’s a stark choice and the play does not disguise it.

In the hands of Caroline Byrne, the Gate’s former associate director, the production is a thing of incredible tension punctuated by moments of warmth between the women. Joan Iyiola is poignantly funny as the pregnant, accepting Bessie, forever primping her wig, her hopes shut down; Letitia Wright, making her professional debut as the youngest wife, is vulnerable yet fierce with it, captivating and clearly a name to watch out for.

It’s a gripping, layered, if sometimes tonally uneven play – especially towards the end – but it’s skillfully handled by Byrne and powerful in more ways than one, a story in need of telling.

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Gripping, human play about women, war and the things people do to survive