Sun Bear review – Park Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Jacob Cox

Review by Natalie Evans

To complete the current double bill showing of one-woman shows at the Park Theatre, Sarah Richardson’s Sun Bear takes to the stage with its UK premiere. Written with a generous sprinkling of spoken word, the text is well paced and colourful. Instantly, we are enticed by protagonist Katy’s explicit language and candid view of office life as she vents to us in hilarious detail how she finds pretty much everyone around her workplace absolutely infuriating. In particular, that c*** Sharon with her faux friendliness and neverending request to ‘borrow’ a pen, and of course Pathetic Pennie, with her constant unsolicited tears and even less solicited invitations to socialise.

For the entirety of the piece, the audience are treated as confidants by Katy, though we are not allowed to see the more sinister truth that is simmering under the sarcastic surface for quite some time. This truth being that she has recently worked up the strength to leave her abusive partner; an incredibly emotionally taxing life event that is bound to take a toll.

Refreshingly, the common trope of a character that has experienced domestic violence being either an angelic avenger or a broken spirit is abandoned here as Katy is just thoroughly human. Through her, we see how traumatic experiences can manifest in uncontrollable anger and frustration as well as fear or sadness. She has neither forgotten or forgiven what she has endured, and she is struggling to move on.

This inner turmoil is punctuated with the literary motif “Breathe. Hard. Swallow. Hard. Blink. Hard.”; a manifesto of sorts that does at times feel a little shoe-horned in due to the sheer frequency
that the phrase is repeated, although it does do the job of verbally illustrating how every aspect of her life was controlled by her ex. Even down to breathing, swallowing, and blinking, leading all to become forced, to become hard.

Sun Bear reminds us that we rarely ever see more than the tip of an iceberg when it comes to what is going on in someone’s life. Richardson’s choice to use satirical comedy via a very blunt character to convey this message was an apt choice considering it is far from uncommon for people to mask their more difficult to deal with emotions and memories by making jokes. Comedic deflection and offending in order to defend is essentially hard wired into us as a species at this point, and Katy’s response to her pain is a prime example. In truth, given the circumstances, her increasingly unreasonable and unhinged behaviour is actually quite understandable.

The piece ends with a speech wherein Katy unleashes all of her pent up thoughts, finally admitting to the truth behind her outbursts and the events that ultimately led to her lack of emotional control.

Unfortunately, this finale does fall a bit flat compared to the rest of the performance, meaning that we don’t quite get the desired satisfying story climax. However, this doesn’t take away from a strong, complex one-woman show that definitely didn’t fail to showcase Richardson’s versatility and stamina as a performer.

Sun Bear is at Park Theatre until 13 April 2024