Matthew Campling’s new play was designed to transfer; it’s an excavation of psychical contagion, the topography of blame. The past, we’re told, is like scaffolding supporting the present. The Secondary Victim invites you to inspect a few castles built on swamps. Campling, a former counsellor, has crafted a psychologically dense and often intense dialogue between broken people; pain catalysed by an allegation of sexual assault.
The complainant is Hugo (Michael Hanratty), a passive aggressive, oft sinister and troubled young man, who takes his former therapist Ali (Susannah Doyle), a middle-aged woman, to a board of enquiry over alleged harassment and inappropriate physical contact. The secondary issues – power, control, lasciviousness, desire, are uncomfortable proxies for the troubles dogging Ali’s marriage to Victor (Gary Webster). Once chief cock, his masculinity’s in crisis – financially reliant on his wife, insecure about his sexual potency and wary of a wife who once showed a capricious side, dumping one man and picking him up at the same party. Consequently, even the suggestion she may have harboured desire for a young buck is enough to widen the cracks. A bereft Ali, who by design must bring her work home, is therefore denied a safe space.
Campling, with due reverence to counselling practice and process, isn’t really interested in teasing Ali’s guilt or innocence – we’re persuaded the complaint’s mendacious from the moment the cocky Hugo talks about cashing in on the scandal with a book deal (a revelation that could have been withheld until the hearing, had the playwright been inclined toward a Perry Mason dénouement at the expense of actual BACP practice). That tension is less important than the why of the complaint and what it reveals about the closet fears and desires of a character who’s bound by profession to be a paragon of clinical objectivity, while inclined, by practice, to shadow her client’s deepest fears.
What we get then, is a Venn diagram of overlapping desires and the compelling emotional fallout from past trauma. Some of the psychological cues are a little heavy handed, for example a subplot built around a client embroiled in an inappropriate relationship with a couple of schoolgirls, and the climax, though powerful, stretches credulity. But strong performances, with Doyle and Hanratty in particular showing great nuance and tenderness, make for an uncomfortable evening at the theatre that pulls you close and hugs you (consensually) for well over two hours.