Brighton Fringe 2014
Roger, an elderly man sits alone in his flat, slowly fading away. There’s nothing to keep him here and he’s ready to go, but old soldiers never die and he wants help. This is a sensitive piece of theatre with remarkable puppetry at its heart.
A youth named Billy visits Rog as part of a social care programme at his college. Rog is an 87 year old man struggling with emphysema, stuck in his nicotine stained flat, rarely moving from his chair, with his NHS walking stick lying by his side. Aside from the brief visits from his carer, Billy is no doubt the only person Rog comes into direct contact with and he consoles himself in a never-ending chain of cigarettes.
These visits are challenging for the young man. It is clearly distressing to witness Rog struggling through coughing fits, desperately clamping an oxygen mask to his face to find a release. But while Rog is bluff and confrontational in his conversation, he is also something of a philosopher and introduces Billy to a world of ideas. Billy is surprised to find himself developing an attachment to the old man and continues to visit long after his placement is over. And things roll on, until Rog asks, ‘Could you kill someone Billy?’ The inference is clear and the tension mounts.
Roger is a puppet. This is an interesting choice, as it underlines the semblance of a life that the character has at this point. His head has yellow, leathery features and his eyes are big, black pools, deep set in his face. There is limited opportunity for movement from puppeteers Nicholas Halliwell and Louisa Ashton. However, these limitations have become a blessing, as the performers have fine-tuned the puppet’s gestures, reducing the character to a series of repetitive movements with cigarettes and lighter and a twitching right thumb, to provide a subtle and stirring performance directed by Shelley Knowles-Dixon.
The show has high production values. Performances are well supported by an intricate sound design from Tom Oakes and beautiful musical accompaniment from Lawrence Illsely on electric guitar. Particularly haunting are the moments when Roger’s coughing echoes through the air along with the dilemma of the situation.
Lawrence Illsley also wrote the play, in response to the death of his father from cancer and using the experience of his mother as a carer. The writing is heartfelt and considered, showing a touching relationship between a young and an old man. It tackles challenging issues, asking the audience to consider the idea of death and how we manage it in our society. These issues are definitely worth tackling. However, while we understand Billy’s conflict, explored with confidence by Graham Dron, Roger’s is much more opaque. He talks of morality but we have no sense of how he comes to place such a weight of responsibility on a young man’s shoulders, who he has only recently befriended. It just seems a little to easy for him and as such, I believe the play is too nuanced to be really powerful. That said, I did find myself wiping a tear from my eye and I would recommend it.