IN BRIEF Compassionate exploration of mental health is challenging but ultimately uplifting
Be Kind. To yourself and others. That’s the core message in Philip Osment’s final play, CAN I HELP YOU? It’s an intriguing puzzle of a play which gradually pulls together a picture of two very different people who have mental health issues. Both have blamed themselves for things not in their power to control, causing them lifelong guilt and self-punishment.
Just as Francis, an off-duty policeman, is about to throw himself off of Beachy Head, he encounters Fifi wandering along with a large shopping bag and a cat box.
Fifi has battled cruelty all her life, from being the only black child at her school, to her own child’s stillbirth, and to her husband’s lack of love and care. Relying on God, voices in her head and her cat (Kat), she has somehow forged her own way through life. Still guilt-ridden, she envisions what her son (Michael)’s life would have been like, and she yearns for him. She thinks she sees him in the people she meets.
Francis is racked with guilt about a time when as a young boy he left his chronically depressed mother alone so that he could get away from her and go on holiday – leaving her to commit suicide undetected.
However, the interspersed flashback scenes demonstrate that rather than being their fault, these events were out of their control, and not as their memories had chosen to recall them.
The guilt of the son and the guilt of the mother are delicately contrasted here and provide an eventual part-catharsis for both Francis and Fifi as they work through their troubled pasts through talking with each other.
Covering mental health from a view of both race and gender, Osment’s script highlights the human costs of the failures of social care systems and their impacts upon innocent people who try to carry on whilst absorbing the overwhelming mental damage this causes.
The script treats the characters with warmth, compassion and understanding, providing a reflective mood for characters and audience alike. As one of them says, “we get so caught up with things that don’t matter you forget the bigger picture”. And here, away from the rest of their lives, it feels that they can get a precious “bigger picture” view of their situation.
A symbolic ending seems gently uplifting in Osment’s signature way; a fitting way to sign off a life’s work.
Technically, the flashback scenes were effectively achieved by changes in lighting and swift physical and vocal character shifts, done with aplomb by the two actors. I did feel that Gabriel Vick’s Francis was rather underplayed at the start of the play, although he gains dramatic “weight” as he gets into the role. Perhaps this might have been a direction issue, although the rest of the play comes across well. Susan Aderin’s Fifi is a magnetic performance, rolling with all the drama and swell of the stormy sea that surrounds her. She gives a powerful performance of pain, loss and hope.
Max Pappenheim’s ebbing and flowing seascape sound design nicely captures the feel of place and the power of nature, the stormy weather echoing the internal mental turbulence the characters feel.
Like other of Osment’s plays, I found that it was rather overstuffed with themes and ideas; the strand about immigration needed more time to enjoy its own space rather than being quickly raised and dropped. But the central themes are well-expressed and the 75-minute running time flew by.
CAN I HELP YOU? Ran at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham until March 15th after which it was closed early owing to the public health emergency.