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Edinburgh Fringe 2023

Where Is Love

Bloomin' Buds Theatre Company / Jennifer Johnson

Genre: Contemporary, Theatre

Venue: theSpace@Surgeons' Hall


Low Down

Gritty observational theatre based on a true life story of the trauma and challenges faced by women in abusive relationships.


Research by Women’s Aid in 2022 estimated that one in three women in the UK suffer some form domestic abuse. Over 95% of those women now report that this abuse has worsened during the last 12 months as the UK’s cost of living crisis bites deeper.  And nearly three-quarters of those women reported that the fear of not being able to make ends meet means they are too scared to leave their abuser.  That’s up to 6 million women.  6 million individuals trapped in an abusive relationship.

Bloomin’ Buds Theatre Company’s Where Is Love was inspired by writer Jennifer Johnson’s experience of working on psychiatric wards dealing with, amongst other things, the mental fallout from those in abusive relationships.  And this evocative, at times chilling piece of new writing gives voice to those who’ve suffered trauma, been failed by the UK’s chronically underfunded mental health services sector but who’ve fought tooth and nail to regain hope.

We begin at Kent House, a non-descript block of low rise council flats in the working class heart of Bradford, once the prosperous centre of the World’s woollen industry but still struggling to regenerate now that world has long since moved on.

The set is redolent of the typical working class home life Johnson is keen to portray.  On the washing line hangs an eclectic mix of shabby looking adult and children’s clothing.  Other ephemera of life are scattered around – a wooden box, a dustbin, an ironing board.

Shelley (Maeve Brannen) is hanging up yet more washing, her well worn, ill-fitting dungarees sporting a number of interesting stains.  But Shelley has fire in her belly, a determination to break the cycle of domestic abuse threatening to engulf her and her young children.  Though just in her twenties, she’s a woman who has dealt with more trauma than many twice her age.

Brannen brings Johnson’s story to life as if she’s peeling back the layers of a rotting onion, looking for something, anything in its centre that she can then build a better life around.  Based on the true life experience of an abused woman, Johnson’s text doesn’t hold back in its portrayal of the fear, uncertainty, humiliation, degradation and physical harm present in an abusive relationship, yet subtly breaks the tension periodically with dark (almost to the point of noir) humour.

A portrait of the abuser slowly emerges, himself (for it’s nearly always a male perpetrator) abused early in life, now dependent on drugs and alcohol.  This being a solo show, his identity is never revealed, but the power of Brannen’s storytelling is such that I could see his image appearing in the minds of each member of the enrapt audience.  And this powerful narration is superbly enhanced by a combination of voice overs of others’ experiences of abuse mixed with the sounds of everyday goings on.

It’s a bravura performance from Brannen, who must be emotionally spent at the end of each show.  She’s supported by Claire O’Connor’s haunting, ethereal soundscape that flows seamlessly around Johnson’s tightly edited, observational script – this is a show that doesn’t mince its words, or waste them.   Grace Wilkinson’s direction is spot on, having Brannen use every inch of the small stage to great effect.

It’s a piece that grabs your attention and you can’t let go.  You’re drawn inexorably into the life being acted out on stage.  But there’s an uplifting (and slightly surprising) denouement which is greeted with an audible sigh of relief from a near-full house.

The excellence of the writing, soundscape, direction and, above all, Brannen’s performance marks this out as a top class piece of theatre, addressing its distressing subject with sensitivity.   And the acclaim from the audience suggests that Bloomin’ Buds Theatre Company has found a winner.  In Bloomin’ Buds own words, it’s “a gritty story about sisterhood, family secrets and broken hearts that somehow leaves you laughing.”