On the Exhale @ Traverse Theatre

A mother’s grief sends her down a dark and terrible path in this play responding to the American gun violence epidemic

Review by Jon Stapley | 08 Aug 2018

At times it feels like the shadow of gun violence in America can only grow longer. Martín Zimmerman’s trenchant one-woman play On the Exhale was written in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, and feels even more grimly relevant in 2018. This production at the Traverse marks the UK debut of his work, jointly presented by China Plate, New Theatre Royal Portsmouth and Audible.

Directed by Christopher Haydon, On the Exhale features Scottish actor Polly Frame (pulling off the American accent, mostly) playing a shy, nervous academic who is devastated by a school shooting and develops a morbid obsession with the gun that bereaved her. It’s a daunting emotional wringer that Frame’s character is put through, and she proves herself more than up to the challenge, with a considered, thoughtful essaying of a character who Zimmerman’s spare script reveals to us slowly and carefully. We aren’t entirely sure what she’s capable of, probably because she doesn’t know herself. A constant, low-level tension persists.

Throughout, Frame steps daintily over a tangle of long fluorescent lights, those uniform tubes that illuminate every school, every hospital, practically every public building we enter. It’s simple but effective – a symbol of order broken down into a dangerous mess. It creates a sense of constant flickering unease, which is bolstered by some excellent bass-driven sound design that knows exactly when to hold back, and when to punch (that first kick of the gun will knock you sideways).

In the wrong hands, the piece’s unexpected climax could have been a let-down. In these, it’s unpredictable in all the right ways, and satisfying without feeling easy or glib.

On the Exhale, Traverse Theatre (Traverse Two), 2-26 Aug (not Mondays), various times, £9.50-£20.50

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