BATS Theatre
March 13-16 | Reviewed by Diane Spodarek

Bent Not Broken is a solo performance, based on Lauren Roche’s autobiographical novel of same name. Lauren’s story is about growing up in New Zealand – and for a short time Australia – under extraordinary circumstances: an extreme environment of abuse by alcohol and drug addicted people. These included her own mother, father, friends of the family, relatives, strangers and later boyfriends, husbands and johns. The consequences of this environment are all too common. Some children survive, some do not.

As a young girl Lauren experienced violence, poverty, rape, and often abandonment at home or in a car with her two sisters, while mum drank in the pub. By the time she was 17 Lauren’s fear of becoming her mother was real. She was pregnant, working in McDonalds, then as a stripper and a prostitute. She abused alcohol and drugs, was addicted to prescription drugs and survived a suicide attempt, unlike her mother who did kill herself. Despite the odds, Lauren Roche was able to raise her self-esteem and loose the belief that she was worthless. She had a dream of becoming a doctor. She went back to school and succeeded.

In Bent Not Broken Merrin Cavel plays Lauren Roche. As the writer and performer she adapted Roche’s story to the stage in this solo performance. At center stage sits a large box surrounded by twelve chairs in a wide circle – much like the clock on the wall, stage left. The hands on the clock say eleven o’clock. The story begins in the first chair. Cavel – as Roche – takes her place in the chair and tells the first story of where she grew up. Scenes are punctuated with black outs and lighting changes as she moves on to the next chair, and the next, making her way to number twelve where a white lab coat hangs over the back of the chair. Cavel speaks in a frightening and quivering child’s voice throughout the show until she reaches chair twelve. At her final destination her voice is adult and confidant. Her child’s voice at times is hard to hear but her adult voice is clear. This directorial device seems to portray Roche as a fearful child, living a scary and hellish life until she became a doctor.

Moving around the clock-chairs Cavel speaks to the center of the stage, at times with her back to the audience, as in chairs five, six and seven (o’clock). The center box is very large and heavy as Cavel pushes it between scenes, in black outs, where it becomes the bank of a river, (where she is raped), a car (where she is raped again); a room with her mother, and the tiny space where she stows away on a US navy ship for three weeks. The stowaway story alone would make an engrossing play: using a flashlight to write in her diary and without enough space to move her legs, Lauren is forced to piss and defecate in a jar, and considers sex with a US sailor after having not showered for three weeks.

Wearing what appears to be a hospital gown and a hospital ID bracelet, Cavel seems to be in a mental hospital. She speaks as if there could be someone in the room with her – perhaps a psychiatrist? Although Roche’s mother spent time in the “funny farm”, as she called it, it is unclear why the director and or Cavel herself would imply through only costume that the entire play takes place in a hospital or psychiatric ward. When Cavel speaks, telling her story as Roche, it is not clear who she is directing her words to. Since location was not given in the program notes, the setting should be clear to the audience from the play itself. The chairs and the clock imply a possible mental ward, but this reality is violated by the box in the middle, a theatrical device for changing the scenery, which brings up a further possibility; that Roche is speaking to a dream therapist. And if she is speaking to some kind of a therapist, who are we in the audience when she occasionally looks our way?

Her eye contact with the audience is sporadic; until chair number twelve she speaks with her eyes down, staring at the floor. However as a doctor she stands erect, wearing the lab coat, and speaks from notes as she walks around the chairs. Now her voice is one of a confident adult who wants to serve and help others. In her newly assertive role she continues to talk into the center of the stage, into the air and occasionally towards the audience. It may have been a director’s choice to have Cavel continue to speak to no one in particular, but this can alienate an audience.

Chairs one through eleven show Cavel as living either at the abusive hands of others or suffering under her own choices, her voice often soft and inaudible; but in chair twelve we are asked to believe that being a doctor solves everything. What if Roche had grown up to be a secretary or a cashier? It would still be an extraordinary story of survival.

In this production the story quickly jumps from chair eleven at the age of 17 to chair twelve, life as a doctor. There must have been something in between, perhaps some joy and humor in Roche’s life, but we are lead to believe that life was worthless until Roche achieved her dream. And at some point Roche must have had a strong sense of self to make the decision to give up a life of drugs and booze, to stop abusing and abandoning her own children. It didn’t happen overnight. The facts of a life as a stripper, prostitute, and alcohol and drug abuser are interesting, but an audience also wants to know what was behind giving up this unhealthy and dangerous life, not just for herself but for her children and others as well.

As already mentioned, throughout the play it isn’t always clear to whom Lauren is speaking. Other doctors? Patients? Other addicts and alcoholics? Her family? Her mother? Who sat in the chairs? But perhaps she is talking to no one in particular, perhaps it is Lauren who is walking around her own self, her life, remembering the horrors of the past. Or perhaps, now that she is a doctor, it’s a quiet celebration of arriving at her dream.

In a solo show there must be a reason to tell a story. And what a story this is. I can’t imagine anything worse for a child than a life of sexual abuse, abandonment by both parents, and a mother who commits suicide – the ultimate abandonment. Surviving this is an accomplishment. But Bent not Broken shows us that Lauren has lived her life repeating her parents’ mistakes – abusing drugs, drinking alcoholically, dropping out of school and doing what she swore she would never do – abandon her own children like she was abandoned.

Merrin Cavel must have taken on this story because she had an immense respect for Roche and a strong belief in a woman’s worth, a child’s worth, a girl child’s worth. Cavel has chosen one of the hardest stories to dramatise: a woman gaining self-worth despite everyone against her. This is not just a story of one woman who does good after a life of sex and drugs. It’s a story about how one person can make a difference, not only in her own life but in others’ as well.

This production was an excellent start of a journey that Cavel seems to be willing to commit to. She has incredible strength to continue the work that this extraordinary story demands.