A claustrophobic, horribly gripping 90 minutes of toxic masculinity

It’s an interesting moment to revive Dennis Kelly’s 2005 nasty little two-hander about a man and a woman holed up in a bunker following a terrorist nuclear explosion, written in the fearful aftermath of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Leave aside for a second the spectre of nuclear war hovering once again over Europe, if you can: in 2022, After The End seems to talk more directly to a nation stumbling out of lockdown, during which reports of domestic abuse against women went through the roof. Put an inadequate man and a woman in an uneasy relationship together in a confined space with no clear deadline on when the confinement will end, as Kelly did in his recent BBC2 lockdown drama Together, and conditions are ripe for things to turn very ugly indeed.

Lindsey Turner’s revival is characteristically immaculate. We’re in a makeshift bunker at the bottom of Mark’s garden where a dazed Louise, a friend, is just coming round. There was a nuclear suitcase explosion outside the pub, awful charred bodies littering the street, and in pulling Louise to safety Mark has saved her life. Their friends used to laugh at Mark for stockpiling cans of chilli but, as Mark now reminds Louise with a sharpness that immediately sets off warning bells, it turns out he was right to fear a nuclear bomb all along.

We’re now much more familiar with the way socially dysfunctional men channel their sexual obsessions and self-esteem issues into a hatred of women than perhaps we were two decades ago: the rise of Incel, the MeToo movement and a greater awareness of toxic masculinity in general has seen to that.

As Nick Blood’s nervy, needy Mark becomes gradually more coercive, insisting that Louise play Dungeons and Dragons to pass the time, denying her food when she resists, and insisting that everything he does is for her benefit, including chaining her to the bed, so emerges with inexorable inevitability a portrait of a lonely fantasist riven with self-loathing.

Yet Turner’s production, staged within a slightly abstractedly rendered bunker with walls a sickly urine yellow, keeps things fresh while steering the action away from anything that could be considered exploitative or gratuitous. The lights briefly go out between each short, sharp scene, making us fear what we will see when they come back on. Moreover, it boasts two absolutely terrific performances.

Nick Blood is almost sympathetic as the clumsy, geeky Mark, anxiously smoothing down his jumper in ways that betray an oddball loner who has internalised every perceived insult, who has a very shaky grasp on the difference between truth and fantasy and who we can be fairly sure has never had a girlfriend in his life.

As the strident, argumentative Louise, Amaka Okafor refuses to appease her supposed benefactor from the very start and, as the dynamic between the pair becomes ever more dangerously unbalanced, somehow manages to avoid any suggestion of victimhood. There is an extraordinary moment, which would be a spoiler to reveal, in which male sexual entitlement is rendered simultaneously appalling and utterly pathetic.

Turner’s production loses steam in the very final scene, which ought instead to be the most chilling. Yet this early work by Kelly (his stage CV now also includes the RSC’s Matilda) remains an all too resonant portrait of the membrane-thin line between civility and barbarity. A horribly gripping 90 minutes.

Until March 26. Tickets 020 8534 0310; stratfordeast.com

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