Review: CAN I HELP YOU?

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.


Review: NO SWEAT

IN BRIEF Bleak, effective youth homelessness drama simmers angrily in moving production

Just occasionally, a show comes from out of the blue to highlight something which for some reason has gone under our collective radar. NO SWEAT was born out of the untold, unseen homelessness crisis in the LGBTQ+ community. Why unseen? Because so many use 24-hour gay saunas as a place of rest and refuge from the harsh realities of the world outside. In a venue where being gay is “the norm”, it may appear to some quite seductive to think of these places as a refuge. However, the sexualised environment leads many to selling sex to survive, which can also lead to drugs. These traps that many vulnerable young gay people fall into are unforgiving and highly damaging.

NO SWEAT tells the stories of three young men who take refuge in FLEX, a London gay sauna. Charlie, the Pakistani asylum seeker who cleans the place for a pittance; and customers Alf, a Welsh body-for-hire and naïve, numb newcomer Tristan. All three having fled from parental rejection and ejection from the family homes, with no means to support themselves.

As their stories and experiences are shared, what is also revealed is the desperation and loneliness of these young men, each at the mercy of others to survive. Forced into “survival sex working”, Alf educates Tristan in how to exist in this new world of 24-hour heat, where they are part of the majority – but still outsiders.

The three men form their own bonds and supportive gestures which bring a genuine humanity to the show and make the central dilemma of these forgotten people all the more moving. Drugs seem to follow sex in a cycle of desperation and numbness.

The performances are all of a high standard. Gentle, romantic and caring Charlie is played with delicate grace by Manish Gandhi, a sweet and generous soul in a country that doesn’t want him.

Cocky, superficially sorted Alf is played with brittle bravado by James Haymer. Denholm Spurr as Tristan gently takes his character from naïve to more knowing, but retaining a genuine helplessness, so that when he says “I don’t really know what I am doing”, its meaning becomes amplified – a strangled cry for help.

The authorities which should be helping are portrayed as doing worse than nothing- an utter failure of care. “Is this a joke?” asks Tristan at the end of his interview for assistance; those unseen forces charged with helping display a lack of respect, willpower and joined-up thinking as well as prejudice of all colours. It is a genuine slap-in-the face moment for characters and audience.

Unfortunately the ending is not a happy one, and the sadness of these lives, damaged through no fault of their own, is mixed with anger at the lack of any kind of effective lines of help for them.

Vicky Moran’s sensitive play, combining a wealth of original research, mixes the dramatic and audio interview clips with real people (which cover the lengthy scene changes) to good effect, but I did feel that the changes rather distracted my attention away from the audio. The piece undoubtedly benefits from Moran’s own direction, and she has fostered telling performances from the cast.

There is some brief nudity in the show, but I felt this rather cleverly underlined the vulnerability rather than providing any genuinely erotic content.

The only decision which didn’t quite work for me was that of asking the actors to be their own inquisitor at their interviews with authority figures, with the actors turning from side to side to represent different voices. I thought that perhaps another unseen voice (on audio) might have better captured the hardness and inhumanity of questioning, and would also have freed up the actors to maintain their carefully-crafted characterisations. However, these are small points.

As a radical call to provide properly for abused and abandoned young people, this is an important and urgent piece of theatre; both producer and writer should be thanked for bringing these issues to a wider attention. One can only hope that this spurs people to action.

Vicky Moran is definitely a writer/director to watch keenly. I also notice that the show’s producer Reece McMahon is a part of the excellent Roundhouse Future Producers scheme. I am excited to see what’s next for both of them.

NO SWEAT played at The Pleasance Theatre Downstairs (London) to February 29th


Review: TIME AND TIDE

TIME AND TIDE runs at the Park Theatre until February 29th. information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Seaside quartet faces change with hope in funny and real play which treats its characters with care

“Cromer’s fine for growing up and ending up, but the bit in the middle – you need some life!”. In her run-down cafe on a Norfolk pier, dreamer May is dispensing advice to her “protégé” Nemo, a young gay man stifled by loneliness who’s leaving for the bright lights of London. But he’s torn between staying and going because of his feelings for his best mate, Daz. Is it love, or just bromance?

Amorous, lonely bread supplier Ken is also looking for company – in May’s direction, but things are not as straightforward as they might seem.

In James McDermott’s TIME AND TIDE, this quartet of characters ebb and flow through many challenges and changes in the pivotal day covered in the play’s two-hour duration. It’s enjoyably human; the carefully-crafted script is peppered with gentle comedy, often naturally arising from the situations and carefully brought out by director Rob Ellis. Humour like the daft, punning shop names, mixed with the quickfire comebacks of adolescence, could so easily have sounded lame, but here they contribute to a kind of authenticity, lending a warmth and ease which enables the audience to relax into the show.

Performances are all of a very high standard. Josh Barrow’s Nemo clings to routine in a busy but studied and vulnerable portrayal, allowing us to see the young man outgrowing his surroundings.  Elliot Liburd’s Daz (“the Archbishop of Banterbury”) exudes that natural verbal playfulness of adolescence that masks deeper, more conflicting feelings which don’t come so naturally. Both actors inhabit their roles meticulously, to effect. Wendy Nottingham points up the dreamer in May, mothering the two lads with compassion and a variable regard for reality; and Paul Easom as Ken the lifelong baker (“Cut me and I bleed yeast”) exudes a rough warmth and a gentle, wistful yearning for what he’s never had.

Ending on a hopeful note, TIME AND TIDE captures these sleepy small-town characters and shows us their hopes, realities and dreams. A small, detailed and touching play, it astutely balances its humour with moments of tension and quiet revelation, made all the more satisfying by Rob Ellis’s production.

TIME AND TIDE runs at the Park Theatre until February 29th. information and tickets here


Review: AUTOREVERSE

AUTOREVERSE plays Battersea Arts Centre until February 22nd. Details and tickets here

IN BRIEF Gentle, loving meditation upon memory and family drives this moving piece

We are each a collection of stories. Our stories become the memories that illustrate our lives, and the things that others use to recall us when we leave this world. Falling victim to distortion, selective memory and the ravages of time and disease, our memories are perilously fragile.

Florencia Cordeu’s one-woman show AUTOREVERSE is a gentle meditation upon the values and sorrows of memory, using cassettes recorded by her family.  As delicate and fragile as the cassette tapes that the voices that are recorded upon, she gifts us not only a memoir of her family but also a wider consideration of life’s fragility.

Set in a pre-internet world (“when the world seemed so big”), their recording of cassettes began when Florencia’s parents fled the incoming dictatorship in 1970s Argentina. Exiled in Chile, the only way to communicate was by recording cassette tapes to the family left behind. Florencia saved these tapes and during her show plays sections of them for us on ten cassette machines, spotted around the stage, most with microphones dangling above them to capture their sound.

It’s an interesting idea, but the show really comes to life when the stories begin. The legacy of over a decades’ worth of fragile, time-worn cassette tapes, their flimsiness evident by the potential for snagging, creasing and tearing, but still small faithful time-capsules. Hearing these “voices across the ages” she delights that “the more I play them, the more they become real”. They are fragments of impartial, objective, faithfully recorded memory.

Recalling family members still surviving or long dead, Cordeu also explores her own memories, what she recalls and what she does not. Particularly moving is her focus on her Uncle Isaac; there is almost literally nothing left of him. He disappeared without trace, without closure, one of the 30,000 to do so during the dictatorship’s life, when families burned letters and photos to eliminate any proof of connection between people that might be exploited by those in power. There are just 24 precious seconds of grainy home movie film to mark Isaac’s life. Half of which he has his back to the camera. This brings a poignant new measure to that time, and as Cordeu says, “this absence makes him more present than ever”.

Cordeu is fascinated by sound itself, using it in very specific ways to make us question and listen anew at sounds she creates.

Lovingly directed by Omar Elerian, for me the show’s gentle pace flags just a little towards the end, but does not detract from an absorbing evening.

Most importantly, AUTOREVERSE is a call for us to share our stories with those we care about, to ensure that stories to do not disappear before the end of our lives. Ironically, the very medium used to keep memories alive, the cassettes which were recorded upon, are now overdue their expected lifespan, a reminder that nothing is permanent.

As intriguing to the younger audience members who see this technology as museum-ware, as well as to older generations who remember the technology’s original liberating qualities, AUTOREVERSE is a poignant and loving look at how we recall our lives.

AUTOREVERSE plays Battersea Arts Centre until February 22nd. Details and tickets here


Review: SCREWDRIVER

IN BRIEF Smartly-written and acted prison story with an arresting twist

Humanity is both the key and the trap in SCREWDRIVER, a new play which has won the inaugural Bill Cashmore Award, playing four nights at the Lyric Hammersmith Studio as part of the theatre’s new Evolution Festival.

“Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” says prison officer Nicole towards the start of this 60-minute (almost) one-woman show. Sharing about her job, relationship and the people she works with, as well as the prisoners themselves, Nicole seems quite sorted and in control. She cares for the prisoners which earns her respect. However, when rules collide with human failings to contribute to the death of an inmate, the tide turns and Nicole finds herself in a corner. Finding consolation where she can, she is drawn into a course of action which will change her life.

The script by Eve Cowley (who stars) and Elin Schofield (who directs) is tightly constructed and quite lean, using the constant tension between humanity and regulations to drive the linear plot. Cowley gives a solid performance as Nicole, working hard to maintain the rhythms of the text, aided by thoughtful direction and moments of dramatic lighting to alter the mood of the piece.

Describing the shifting dynamics of prison life effectively, this still feels a little like a work still in development. The show moves along at quite a leisurely pace and the audience’s realisation of the clever twist in the tail comes a little too late in the running time and rather too quickly to be believable. Perhaps more time examining Nicole’s feelings might have better darkened the atmosphere in preparation. However, it’s a clever piece of storytelling and although only occasionally theatrical, it held the audience I was with. I enjoyed its nicely cyclic ending, too. Perhaps just a little longer time to build to the twist might have helped its undoubted impact.

A season at Edinburgh would be a wise move, I think.

SCREWDRIVER played the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith Studio space from 11-14 February