Edinburgh Fringe 2010
In Memory lays out in some detail the inexorable journey, when a much loved parent contracts a fatal illness, from diagnosis via treatment to bereavement. Performed by a well-disciplined ensemble cast of 13-year-olds, there are moments when the detailed observation is touching, but in both staging and script the whole experience is just a bit too safe to be ultimately moving.
Twelve schoolchildren dressed in black and barefoot, with eleven boxes, one stool and some yellow cloths tell the story of a parent’s death by tumor. The smallest girl in the cast plays the daughter, and occasionally the tallest becomes her mother, Mrs Birch, but otherwise the company move and speak as a chorus, with lines distributed evenly among them throughout. The story begins with the daughter’s shock at hearing over the phone the news of her father’s diagnosis (a brain tumor for which the prognosis is grim) and continues via his treatment in hospital and nursing at home to the inevitable ending and a final tribute to a lost and much loved dad. It is delivered by the young cast with a dignified absence of mawkish sentimentality or sham emotion, the details of the story itself being allowed to make their own impression.
The movement of the company is well-disciplined, efficiently shifting from one blocking configuration to another, but beyond this stage traffic control the choreography never really stretches to a more ambitious or expressive form of physicality. Likewise, although it is a strong point that every member of the cast picks up cues and delivers their lines loudly enough to be heard (even above the unnecessary fans which C-venues misguidedly insist on in many of their spaces), none of the cast are ever given any speech of more than a few lines or any single line which carries a heart-stopping emotional punch.
Not surprisingly two acting faults common to young actors were often in evidence – the meaningless thrusting-with-both-hands gesture signalling an unspecific emotional emphasis was actually choreographed threefold during one scene – and none of the cast ever looked the audience in the eyes, which was perhaps easier on the young performers, but also allowed the audience to withdraw to a safe emotional distance. The bravery of India Taylor, the girl playing the central role of the bereaved daughter, could have had a more devastating impact had she not always seemed to be staring into the lights above the audience’s heads.
Apart from the sparing use of some sad music – the first time nicely providing a contrast to the cast’s reflections "If my dad had cancer…" the second less successfully underscoring a some poetic speeches – there was scant attempt at using lighting or sound to enhance the drama, but given the limitations of the venue this was perhaps a good thing.
Scripted and directed by Victoria Harvey-Seldon, with this being Gresham’s 15th year on the fringe, I had hoped for a more powerful experience but perhaps that would be asking too much of a group this age. For what they have achieved the company should be praised, and it is quite possible that for some of them this experience of expressing powerfully emotive and possibly personal material through disciplined stage-craft will mark a positive start to a longer career in the theatre and perhaps many more Edinburgh appearances in the future.
The play itself, however, seems to be trying to have its cake and eat it. The first scene is set in a school classroom, and for the first half of the play I was under the impression that the show may have actually been created In Memory of one of the cast’s own lost parent. However, when a thirteen year old told her father that his grandchild will kick a ball I wondered at the child’s prescience, and then the penny finally dropped close to the end when the writer thanks her dad for 28 years of parenting. It may seem a ghoulish response but I felt somehow short-changed that the writer had put her own adult experience directly into the mouths of the youngsters. Having lost a parent to cancer while I was at school myself, I was expecting this show to evoke memories and an emotional response particular to the experience of losing a parent much too young. Perhaps my disappointment was a punishment for overly great expectations.
For tackling head-on such an emotionally charged subject and performing with discipline and dignity, the young cast deserve congratulations, and while it may not appeal to a wide audience those who already have an interest in the subject matter and are open to the idea of seeing a school company on the fringe will not be let down by In Memory.