FringeReview Scotland 2022
Beth is a lovely girl. She has Downs and requires a support worker – Tracy. Tracy has never been a support worker before and being nervous about how to approach things has an honesty with Beth which cements their relationship really quickly. Chance encounter in a coffee shop brings in Mark. Tracy likes Mark, introduces him, a musician, to Beth. Beth likes Mark. Mark likes Tracy. The triangle of love brings the conflict needed but it was never a realistic prospect – Mark and Beth. So, they had to be honest with each other. In the end, Beth was still looking for love.
This is a curious piece which manages to cover a tremendous amount of ground whilst also giving us insight into the life and loves of a young woman. Nothing particularly challenging about that you may think, after all our principal character, Beth is independent, lives in her own flat, has a wee part time job, goes to college, has hopes and dreams, perhaps an unhealthy obsession with Harry Styles but overall, just your typical, early twenties gal. But living with Downs means that you have a very different future to the typical early twenty’s gal out there. Your hopes and dreams must be tempered by “reality”. But according to who?
The script manages to give us all of the expected challenges faced by Beth in her routine, the excitement of new people and the fear of the outside and being laughed at. Tracy’s naivete is a subtle counter point as she tries and gets Beth to shop, then the pub and to be creative in expanding Beth’s horizons which have been limited by her own painful experience. It is a little chastening for Tracy as she tries her best to be her best but is falling a little short in achieving what she thinks would be best for Beth. Thanks to her blossoming relationship with Mark, who comes and helps, Beth gets out and we see them bowl, walk, skate and listen to Mark in the pub. The conflict is obvious for us all to see as Beth tells her bestie Tracy how she feels about Mark whilst Tracy is feeling the same and has no tactics to sort things out. It leads to Mark coming close to kissing Beth and Tracy going off on one when a peck on the cheek looks more than it might be.
There was always going to be trouble ahead.
The script handles that with the reality of being a disabled adult today. As someone who trains people in care I was sitting initially inwardly screaming about induction and training for Tracy as she made mistake after mistake in her initial exchanges with Beth. Where’s the care plan, risk assessment, initial training, why does she not know much about Beth before meeting her, an inner demon screamed inside me. Exactly where it always is, an afterthought for some, a rushed job for others and just the delight for many they can get someone to fill the post. I was watching reality and not the cosy fiction we all want to believe exists for our most vulnerable. It was to Tracy’s credit it did not end in anything like disaster. Well, unless you don’t count the human cost of a society that places limits upon its people.
Theatrically the performances were great. As Beth, Abigail Brydon was always going to be authentic. The run she has enjoyed meant she was always going to fit comfortably over time into the role, but she can act. Boy, can she act. It is nuanced, clever, touching, beautifully poised and thoroughly aware of her surroundings. I don’t want more of her as a Downs actor, I want more of her as an actor. It may be ironic that what we have is a simple tale well told that shows a part of our society up and instead of seeing this young actor being used more widely it highlights just how capable and creative we can be as a society when all of us are given opportunities. In support, Tracy played by Rachel Still and Mark played by Calum Barbour support rather than carry her. It is an ensemble piece that works well. Both know how to give their characters depth as the script allows and that is a comfort as they know whose story this is. It is not about a poor care worker sent in inadequately prepared to do her job. We also have Rachel Amy playing Julie as Beth’s friend and confidante in the charity shop. Amy also has a role in interpreting in BSL. Oftentimes this can cause some issues as BSL interpreters are that. Where it works best is where companies integrate as much as possible into the performance and here, we have a fully integrated piece where the BSL comes not as an afterthought but central to the communication of it. I liked the creative use, and it worked well. There were a few sticky bits, perhaps mostly during the tender pieces of work but we need to exploit the resource more and learn more about its use, not shy away from embracing it.
The direction was great with the use of a minimalistic set – four chairs – being utilised in a variety of very creative ways. It also meant that we were in the zone for the BSL and not expecting a naturalistic environment or piece of theatre. That included the audio description at the beginning which settled me into realising what it was I was here to see. It added to my anticipation and did not make me feel that I was in a piece of theatre that was going to be more worthy than theatrical.
A key part of the message was when Mark almost kissed Beth. All the mixed up emotions and the possibilities that came from that moment were a little icky, hugely uncomfortable but slap bang where it needed to be. Beth may well not be the woman we expect to have desires, but she will. Why would she not want love in her life? It reminded me of Helen and Colin. When I worked at Borderline Theatre Company decades ago, we did a film about special needs adults. Helen loved Colin and Colin loved Helen. They were both a part of the group, but their families would not let them see each other privately for fear of what might happen. When I left Borderline, I often thought of them both and though they both had special needs, the fact that the love life was the subject of reviews, meetings and “adult” discussions without the adults being totally involved in them was quite difficult for me then, Downs with Love was a reminder of how far we have still not travelled today.
And so, I left feeling that we had a theatrical reminder of what society needs to embrace. As writer and director Suzanne Loftus and her team at Cutting Edge deserve huge credit but not just because of what they have created, but of what they gave a platform to – we had already unearthed it.