I am regularly impressed by the quality of work from some of the new young drama companies emerging in or around Norwich. Their fresh and original creations have given me some of the best theatrical experiences I have enjoyed in the last few years.
The double bill from Amplify Theatre presented at Stage Two behind the Theatre Royal looked like a challenging prospect – two plays looking at the issue of male suicide. While both raised questions about how as a wider society we support and identify those at risk the two new works presented were both first rate dramas that were very enjoyable while undoubtedly carrying a message.
The first play, Tommy, focused on the life story of a young man who has suffered some difficult (but not unusual) life events and finds himself increasingly disconnected from the normal path of human emotional development. It is a straightforward piece that switches back and forth in time but is presented as a series of vignettes of the life events that give a context to a man who has a losing struggle with his own mental health. Setting it in America means that we see the added horror of easy access to lethal weapons for just about anyone, including those who really do not need that further threat to their wellbeing.
Louis Williams is well cast as Tommy, a troubled, stumbling young man trying to find out what works for him in life while having the people he cares most about arbitrarily taken from him. He is hugely engaging and his skills take us into his hopes and fears and dreams from the getgo, making sense of the dramatic standoff that both starts and ends the work. Alice Porteous plays both his Mum and the two people he falls in love with – teenager Lily who suddenly disappears from his life and young adult partner Katherine whose devotion he cannot return. Bryan Tshiobi and Jennifer Collard play his father, stepmum, and numerous other characters and show us a family like many others, not perfect but trying to do their best.
This well acted work written by Sebastian Garbacz really does help us to understand how a difficult life can become an impossible life if we do not take the time to to see the symptoms of mental ill health and recognise them rather than just spurning the sufferer.
The second play, Breathing Corpses by Laura Wade, is a much more complicated work showing us the interactions between seven apparently unconnected people (and one off stage dog). Chambermaid Amy (Katie Smith) discovers her second hotel room corpse Jim (Jacob Bell) and chats with his immobile figure about her feelings on this eventuality before we go back and find out more about Jim, his wife Elaine (Tara Woodley) and employee Ray (Will Owen) in the storage facility they manage. Something smells bad in one of the stores, and that in turn takes us into the dysfunctional lives of Kate (Aimée De-Ritis) and Ben (Tom Showell), and their dog, as a failing relationship becomes violent. A final and rather curious episode sees chambermaid Amy chatting to another hotel guest Charlie (Henry Opiña) in a decidedly odd encounter which starts when she fears he is her third corpse.
The many twists and turns of this work sometimes seem to lead us up dead-end paths and unresolved twists, but the heart of the drama is about the effect of witnessing traumatic events upon people who may not have the means to deal with this shock. It looks at unpleasant and violent behaviour as well as at the symptoms of distress and mental ill health. The device of using implicit rather than explicit connections between apparently disparate events creates extra tensions which the writer exploits with small sub-plots that appear to go nowhere but leave us increasingly unsettled. The only problem with this scattergun approach to story-telling is that it may undermine the Directors’ aims of breaking down the stigma attached to male mental health problems as the audience wonders about the significance of particular details. I am still not sure about that knife in a box.
The young cast handle this difficult script very well, with some graphic moments of violence and complex sexual undertones portrayed with quiet conviction and thoughtful acting that is particularly suited to the relatively intimate space in Stage Two. Like Tommy, it may be challenging in content but it is hugely enjoyable in delivery and leaves the watcher feeling blessed with greater insight into an area of human life too often hidden away in the past. I look forward to the next productions from this talented company.
© Julian Swainson 2019
Read more in our preview article here: http://norwicheye.co.uk/whats-on/double-bill-raising-awareness-of-male-suicide-to-be-performed-at-norwich-theatre-royal/