Brighton Fringe 2021
You know you’re in the presence of great writing when a story unfolds itself effortlessly, seemingly without any fuss or artifice – although there’s artifice in plenty behind the lines: they just seem effortless.
Take the opening lines of ‘You’. A woman sits, centre stage, talking softly 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 letters are in there too.”
Just eight lines on the page, but we’ve been given almost all the facts we need to make sense of what’s to come. A woman has had to give up a child, a boy, presumably for adoption; long enough ago for the birth document to have faded, and it seems like he’s about to re-appear in her life. The economy of the writing, the pace of the delivery and the minimalism of the information, are stunning. It could have been written by Samuel Beckett.
The woman is Kathleen, and Sarita Plowman plays her with a working-class accent – not comically gross like Eliza Doolittle, just enough to show that she and her family never had enough money, or education, or sufficiently wide horizons.
That Kathleen is in her forties, but then she jumps back in memory to when she’s fifteen, and Plowman makes her voice much harsher as she becomes her mother June, who’s just realised that the girl is pregnant.
“How many weeks late? Look at me; how many?”
It’s no mean feat to make enormous jumps in both character and time, but Plowman did it so believably that it felt like we were watching two people on stage, instead of just her. As the play progressed, we learn that Kathleen’s baby will be given up for adoption – but you already knew that, of course, from the opening lines. He’s going to be taken by a couple – “from the university”.
So Plowman changes her vocal register again, and takes on the middle-class tones and speech patterns of Vanessa. Doctor Vanessa Riley, with a PhD in mathematics and the assertive confidence that Kathleen couldn’t begin to aspire to.
Vanessa’s husband is Tom. He’s a lecturer in music, plays piano both in concert and in pubs, and when they first meet, Vanessa nicknames him ‘piano man’. Sam Tully plays him as a perfect foil to Vanessa – relaxed, confident, rather amusing. But their idyllic married life is overturned when Vanessa suffers a series of miscarriages – Plowman gave us a harrowing portrayal of the woman’s anguish, while Tully produced a sense of Tom’s stoical support for his wife, letting us just glimpse the sadness he must have himself been feeling. When it’s clear that she won’t be able to have children, Vanessa is bereft – “But what are we going to do, Tom? No babies. No babies, piano man.”
As Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina – Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Mark Wilson’s writing brings out the family tragedy at the centre of so many adoption stories, and Director Gina Laline achieved performances from her actors that turned his words into a living reality on The Warren’s Oil Drum stage. But adoption involves several relationships, and this is a two-person show, so Sarita Plowman and Sam Tully play, in total, seven roles.
As well as Tom and Vanessa, we’ve met Kathleen and her mother June, but there’s also Bill, her father. Tully changes register to play him as working-class, too, but less angry than June, and though he’s upset at the pregnancy he’s much more supportive of his daughter. There’s a real tenderness between them; and then later Tully shows us a more assertive side of Bill, when when the man feels he’s being ignored at the mother and baby home.
And then of course there’s the father of Kathleen’s baby. That’s Frank, a nineteen year old squaddie, home on short leave. Sam Tully morphed again, to give us the confident swagger of the young man – “Didn’t I just look the dog’s bollocks? forty-eight-hour pass, marching down Heath Street in my uniform. Didn’t tell her I was coming, my Mum. A surprise. Not as big as the one she had for me though.”
Frank’s mother Margie’s got a new man, and a new baby, so there’s no room for Frank in this family any more. Another domestic tragedy. Sarita Plowman portrayed Margie as from the same sort of social stratum as Kathleen’s mother; but she’s just sketched in, really, as Frank storms out to a dancehall, where he meets Kathleen. “And your arms tight round me holding on and me holding on … And – daft this – but it felt so much like something I could keep, something I could hold on to and keep so that it would never be lost.”
They cling together. And he gets her pregnant. He at nineteen, she at fifteen. Both of them children, really.
One family with a shortage of babies, and another family with a surplus. Mathematically it should be a simple problem to solve – but that doesn’t take into account the human emotions involved in motherhood. For Kathleen, as her baby is taken away from her after six weeks, it’s the separation. “So which kiss was the last? Which desperate hug with my face cuddled down in his?”
For Vanessa, who’s finally got the baby she’s yearned for, there’s still the knowledge that the baby has another mother, a biological mother – “Can feel it. There. Can almost touch it: like a thread running and tugging between you both. … Running between you – mother and son, mother and son – always running between you, always there, no matter where or how far away I try to take you. When? When do I begin to feel all right? When do I start to have permission?”
Vanessa does have permission, though, and it seems she has given the baby, who she names Charlie, a very good upbringing and life. But the thread is always there, and so years later Charlie gets in contact with his birth mother. As Vanessa puts it – “And for my sake you’ll use the word, ‘trace’, sensing that ‘search’ might sound too full of need; for my sake.”
Delicate writing. Poignant. When I first saw this play, back in 2015, it was done in a small indoor space and played very low-key, which achieved an intimacy that seemed to me to be lacking in this slightly shouty production on the much bigger stage at The Oil Shed. This version featured music, too – setting the mood during the scenes like in a film score. Three very talented performers: Fred Hills on Guitar, Andrew Stuart-Buttle on violin and Alfie Weedon on double-bass. Beautiful playing; but their volume was sometimes so loud that it was hard to hear the actors.
But for all that – watching ‘You’ is a remarkable experience. The jumps in time and space that keep the audience on our toes, the skill with which Sarita Plowman and Sam Tully create living characters and slip seamlessly between them. And the craftsmanship of Mark Wilson’s writing, with the end scene looping back to Kathleen’s lines at the play’s opening.
Memorable. Moving. Catch it if you possibly can.