Hayley Wareham’s debut play Bottled initially comes across as a familiar coming of age story. Katie is about to turn 15 and is preoccupied with all the things 15-year-old girls are usually preoccupied with – her exams are coming up and there’s a boy at school she fancies; her mum’s new boyfriend is kind of annoying, but not overly so. But over the course of an hour it shifts into something a lot darker and sharper.
After her widowed mum marries the irritating Brian, he becomes increasingly controlling and violent. Wareham’s play convincingly captures the creep of this from a teenager’s perspective. The warning signs are there. We hear how his hold over her mother intensifies, until Katie and her mum have no choice but to flee. They end up shunted from refuge to hostel, as Wareham shows how a strained and under-resourced system can fail the victims of domestic abuse. Without overdoing it, the play subtly highlights one of the more under-discussed consequences of austerity.
Chris White’s production uses the accoutrements of a certain kind of fringe show – balloons, party hats, the ubiquitous fairy lights – to strong effect, subverting expectations, so when the tone of the play turns, it’s al the more jarring. The character of Katie is played by three performers—Alice Vilanculo, Isabel Stone and Wareham herself— and good as they all are, this decision to fragment her dilutes the power of the piece a little.
The writing could also do with tightening at times, but Wareham is clearly a playwright of talent as well as a strong performer, showing Katie’s shift from adolescent self-centredness to emotional numbness. Her eye for detail is particularly good – the policeman who shakes Brian’s hand after failing to take Katie’s mum’s complaint seriously, the heart-breaking blobs of Blu tack on the walls of the hostel – it’s the little things that sting.