Brighton Fringe 2015
S P O I L E R A L E R T
This review probably contains spoilers. If this is a problem, please stop reading NOW. You can see my policy at www.stratmastoris.wordpress.com/spoilers
After half a dozen pages I put the book down – astonished.
We’d bought the script of ‘You’ after seeing a performance in the upstairs space at The Rialto, as I wanted a memento of the show as well as something to refer to while writing this review.
Astonished. It was like opening the bonnet of a very sleek motor car – all smooth curves and aerodynamic form – and gazing at the engine, with its pipes, pumps, belts, cables and struts, that actually makes the thing go.
In the book I saw a character’s lines set out, suddenly jumping to become someone else’s in what seemed an impossible collision, and I remembered how, when I had watched those same lines being spoken on stage, they had just flowed so naturally.
Here I was looking at the craftsmanship below the finished product.
‘You’ is a play about adoption. Not an uncommon occurrence in our society – neither is the illegitimate pregnancy or teenage motherhood which so often precedes it – but Mark Wilson has taken the unusual step of giving us the story from the viewpoint of both the birth mother and the adoptive mother – simultaneously.
At least, that’s how it looks to me. In the notes at the front of the script Wilson states that – ‘This is Kathleen’s story and all the characters that emerge from within it come from her imagination and her memory’. Personally, I think that Vanessa and Tom have far too much inner life and detail to be simply constructs of Kathleen’s. I think that – like Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ – they’re living, breathing entities who have taken up residence in Mark Wilson’s play.
So who are all these people? ‘You’ is actually about the interaction of three families. Kathleen is only fifteen when she gets pregnant by Frank, a nineteen year-old soldier. Kathleen has to deal with her parents, June and Bill, who insist that she has the child adopted – while Frank has his own problems with his mother, Margie, and her new relationship and child. Vanessa and Tom are the couple, childless after two failed pregnancies, who adopt Kathleen’s baby.
That last paragraph sounds like an average soap-opera plot – but there’s a vast difference. TV, like cinema, generally treats its audience as passive and rather childish. They need to be shown everything. The sets and lighting are designed to give the impression that we’re looking at actual people through some ‘fourth wall’. Cinema attempts to create the illusion that we’re actually in the scene ourselves, first with colour film, then high definition images, wraparound sound and now 3D.
Theatre, by contrast, treats its audience as grown-ups. ‘You know that this set isn’t real – if indeed there’s any set at all – but you’re able to suspend disbelief while we tell you a story. If the plot requires a window, or the seat of a bus, or even a palm tree on a desert island, then this box or this chair will have to make do – and you, as an adult, can create the scene for yourself, in your own imagination’.
That’s what Mark Wilson has done with ‘You’. Seven characters, but just two performers, in an acting space set in traverse down the centre of The Rialto theatre, with audience seated on both sides, and a couple of chairs. No fancy lighting, no special effects – just those two actors telling us a story.
Kathleen’s story. A good Irish name, Kathleen, and Kathryn O’Reilly plays her with a convincing Irish accent and that protective crossing of the arms across the chest that you often see in middle-aged women who are on the edge of the underclass. As if they’re always feeling slightly cold. O’Reilly is in her thirties, with a slender body and a soft voice that catches as she sets the scene for us with a line that could have been written by Samuel Beckett. Talking to herself – "So today: Friday. Imagine. Him, coming here"
"You still have the clothes, don’t you; the ones they let you keep? Still in that drawer in the upstairs room, and the piece of faded blue card with his birth-weight and the time – blue for a boy"
The economy of the writing is stunning. In just seven lines (on the page) Mark Wilson has told us almost all the back-story that we need to know. We already have a good grasp of Kathleen’s character and her probable social class – and we know a fair amount about this hugely important event from her past.
A class and an era when an illegitimate pregnancy was something much more unacceptable than today (though how far have we really progressed?) and Kathleen’s voice morphs into her mother’s as she recalls June’s anger – "The shame" – and then immediately jumps back to her own voice again – "The way she said it sounded like the plague".
"The shame" For Kathleen’s mother’s line, O’Reilly makes her voice much harder and louder. Then a few lines later she becomes her mother, and pulls her head back slightly too, altering her posture to give physical expression to June’s anger and horror at what her daughter has done – "How many weeks late? Look at me; how many?"
O’Reilly grabbing at her own arm as she recalls how her mother grabbed her that day – "Dragging at your arm to turn you round, hurting. You were never easy"
That last bit – ‘You were never easy’ – is Kathleen reciting her mother’s outburst, and then O’Reilly changes posture and voice back to June herself – "And now this. This. Fifteen years old. Well you’re gong to get rid of it, hear me, Kathleen?"
So we’ve got three distinct levels going on here. Kathleen in the present. Kathleen’s memories of her mother, remembering her today. And Kathleen’s mother herself, all those years ago when she discovered the pregnancy. But this is theatre, so they flow together seamlessly and the thing makes perfect sense.
Subtle writing, giving us interleaved layers of character and of time. It takes a very talented actor to carry this off convincingly, and Sarah Myott-Meadows, the director, has two of them. Kathleen’s father is Bill, a much softer, kinder man than his wife, and reflective – "So no. Being told wasn’t the worst part, Kathy. It’s this quiet that’s slid between us now like glass – thick. It wasn’t silence. There was no anger in it for silence. Just quiet".
Stephen Myott-Meadows must be in his thirties too, dark hair cut fairly short and radiating an aura of calm and … competence. He looks like the kind of man you could rely on. He plays Bill, then later he’s Frank, the young squaddie, and he can look, and sound, youthful enough to play him convincingly.
"And didn’t I look the part? Didn’t I just look the dog’s bollocks? Forty-eight hour pass, marching down Heath Street in my uniform, kit bag over my shoulder. Nineteen. Home. Didn’t tell her I was coming, my Mum. A surprise. Not as big as the one she had for me though".
Frank’s been displaced in his mother’s life by her new man, and their new baby. Another little family tragedy here, as O’Reilly becomes Margie, Frank’s mother, with a snappy manner and working-class accent – "You’ll ‘ave to sleep downstairs". That’s because, as Frank tells us (straight to audience) – "The baby had my room". Margie’s trying to make things better – "Heatley, your little brother", to which Frank retorts, sourly – "Half -brother".
Again, the economy of writing is remarkable. ‘Half-brother’. What a complicated back-story, what feelings of loss and resentment – all summed up those two short words. And Mark Wilson’s script allows subtle differences of viewpoint to emerge. Kathleen can give us her recollections of Frank, then Frank himself can talk to us directly, telling us his feelings, and then we see him in conversation with Margie his mother, as O’Reilly has switched from Kathleen into that role.
Both O’Reilly and Myott-Meadows are very accomplished actors. Their range of emotion is totally believable, their accents are convincing, and they occupy the acting space very confidently. Having audience on both sides is almost like doing the play in the round, and the pair kept moving position so they could play both sides equally. They kept making eye contact with us, too. There were only two layers of seats on each side, so we were very close to them and it felt quite intimate as we each received a gaze so personal that it felt like they were looking right into our souls, before it moved on to make contact with our neighbour.
I haven’t mentioned Vanessa and Tom yet. O’Reilly and Myott-Meadows play these two as a different class entirely. They’re upper middle-class – she’s a university lecturer and he’s a musician – and the couple radiate the confidence and self-assurance that comes with that background. He plays piano, and from their first meetings Vanessa addresses him as ‘Piano-man’.
But her pregnancies miscarry, and she’s pining – "But what are we going to do, Tom? No babies. No babies, piano man".
So they adopt. On this subject, we usually hear either the sadness of the birth mother having to give away her baby, or the joy (and perhaps the problems) that the new infant brings to the adoptive parents. Mark Wilson links them in this narrative, as Vanessa goes to pick up Kathleen’s child, who she’s going to call Charlie. She’s been so happy, and now there’s a sudden spasm of panic, talking breathlessly to herself –
"Can feel it. There. Can almost touch it like a thread running and tugging between you both. Between you and that woman behind the door at the top of the stairs. As though at that very moment, at the very point of separation, its length and strength for the coming years were being tested"
"When? When do I begin to feel all right? When do I start to have permission?"
"Charlie’s mine, he’s mine now. Let go. Please, for Christ’s sake, let him go. Let him"
But ties of blood, and the need to know our roots, are very strong, and finally, after thirty years, Charlie the adopted child is about to make contact with Kathleen. Vanessa had forseen this day coming –
"I know – inevitable really – but I know that one day, when you’ll have taken me out somewhere perhaps – a day you’ll have built yourself up to, wondering where the words would come from – you’ll ask me how I’d feel about you maybe trying to trace her: your birth mother. That’s what they’re called: birth mother – how I’d feel. And, for my sake you’ll use the word ‘trace’, sensing that ‘search’ might sound too full of need; for my sake"
At the end, the actors quit the space and the lights came up, but the audience just sat there for a while, lost in our own thoughts and holding back tears, reluctant to leave.