First Time

WatersideArts

Written by Nathaniel Hall

Directed by Chris Hoyle

It is 100 years since the end of WW1 from which so many young men never came home or were permanently altered or scarred from their war experiences. A lost generation still mourned today. It is 70 years since the introduction of our beloved NHS which has saved or prolonged so many lives and continues to do so today. It is 30 years today since the very first World AIDS day dedicated to raising awareness around HIV and AIDS and commemorating those who have died from an AIDS related illness. It is one week since I saw The Inheritance Parts 1 and 2 which poignantly honours that whole generation of mentors, friends, family and lovers who died from Aids related illnesses. A lost generation still mourned today.

Last night I saw Nathaniel Hall’s one man show First Time, which tells his story of contracting HIV at barely 17 from his first sexual relationship. A boy teetering on the brink of Adulthood he had a positive first gay relationship but barely months later had a shocking diagnosis that changed his life and must have seemed for him like the party was well and truly over before it ever had a chance to properly begin.

I don’t want to use the term brave to describe this performance but it is difficult not to. This is work that is searingly honest, and while it may feel liberating for the writer/performer to now be able to tell his story, it also makes him incredibly vulnerable. It exposes him as he explores his shock, shame and denial on his slow journey towards accepting his situation and finding his own path to healing. This is a celebration of the human capacity to survive and find hope in the darkest places.

Working with dramaturg and Director Chris Hoyle, Hall has developed his work into a delicately pitched performance that can move from gallows humour and raw despair into whimsical charm and impish wit. Throughout his performance Hall exudes grace and charm, interacting with the audience with a natural warmth. Even at its darkest moments it feels like Hall is always mindful of his potential audience and ensures the performance never becomes maudlin or slips into being self- pitying.

The staging is effective in the small intimate space, fluidly allowing for scenes on park benches, hospitals appointments, his bedroom or at the school prom. The lighting and sound capture the essence of magical moments such as the slow dance under the mirror ball with an audience member which so neatly encapsulates a life that would never be. Squirty string effectively conjures up the experience of projectile vomiting during illness, while the sinister ticking clock and disembodied fragments of voice-over chillingly convey the puncturing of Hall’s whole world on initial diagnosis.

First Time is also a homage to the NHS and to the wonderful work of The George Trust which has worked so tirelessly to provide support to those living with HIV or with Aids. It is evident how vital this support has been to allow Nathaniel Hall to find his own path to holding no blame and no shame. The scene in which Manchester rain pours down as Hall stands under an illuminated umbrella with the audience all quietly holding tea lights in remembrance of a lost generation is a masterstroke of quiet reflection and genuine shared emotion. Sitting in that theatre last night watching First Time reminded me of the first time I worked the telephone counselling line at Manchester Aidsline over 30 years ago. It was a full house last night, but I can’t help feeling it was also filled many times over by the spirits of all those young men no longer here, who would have also been loudly and proudly applauding Nathaniel.

Waterside Arts 29th Nov – 1st Dec

THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME

THE EDGE THEATRE

Written and Directed by Janine Waters

Music & Lyrics by Simon Waters

The sun is shining, the food at The Dressing Room is tasty and plentiful and the garden at The Edge Theatre is colourful with lush flowers and bright balloons. It feels like a garden party and it is indeed time to party. This is a celebration of the wonderful creative partnership between The Edge Theatre and The Booth Centre who work with people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Last year’s show A Spanish Adventure was really impressive. Today’s performance is also a celebratory homage to our NHS turning 70 on July 5th.

This is a labour of love with a backdrop of blue hospital curtains and NHS health signage dotted around. The cast are clad in the pastel hues of a wide range of NHS staff. Hospital beds and wheelchairs glide across the stage and at one point forceps, stethoscopes and other medical implements are amusingly used to form the percussion for one of the musical numbers.

The performance uses a range of skits, songs and choreographed pieces to acknowledge the value and significance of the NHS in our lives. Whether rich or poor, sick or well, we are all so used to its existence we might easily forget it only sprang into existence in the second half of the last century. We take it for granted and in this performance there are timely reminders of its inherent value, what we lacked before it’s creation and what may follow if we don’t fight to protect our NHS services.

The music is gorgeous with all new numbers written by Simon Waters apart from the Gershwin classic as title song. The lyrics are witty and wry and competently delivered by the cast and a truly wonderful chorus comprised of Connie Hartley, Jessica McLinden and Michael Christopher.

There is some lovely humour and slapstick clowning with great comic timing that is balanced by some emotive and genuinely poignant pieces. The closing speech is beautifully written and delivered wonderfully by a younger cast member. It alludes to the strong connection we all have as our NHS does literally pull each of us into this world and holds many of us as we leave it. We owe it an immense debt and need to protect it, and this performance is a lovely reminder. It’s Your Birthday….Leave the worrying to Us. We are many and we are mighty.

The Edge Theatre 5-7th July

The Almighty Sometimes

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

By Kendall Feaver

Directed by Katy Rudd

Winner of The Bruntwood Prize for playwriting 2015 this play tackles a vital social issue regarding our approach to children’s mental health, and how we support and educate families coping with mental illness. Kendall Feaver has written a beautifully balanced play that looks at the pros and cons of medication. The Almighty Sometimes puts a spotlight on fraught and complex family situations by questioning if it is possible to find a balance where we enable young people to have their independence as they grow into adulthood and still ensure we safeguard vulnerable individuals.

The writing is always engaging and Feaver skilfully takes the audience into Anna’s world where there are no certainties. She is constantly checking out what What do you think of me? Anna is complex, full of confidence and bravado yet also crippled with fears over who she really might be or could be without her medication. Feaver ensures no character is one dimensional and our perceptions and loyalties are constantly shifting. Is her mother Renee doing her very best for her daughter or is she smothering and controlling? Martyr, monster or a Mum desperately navigating CAMHS, the cash strapped NHS adolescent mental health service? Psychiatrist Vivienne appears dedicated and professional, and emotionally invested in Anna. Yet does she know enough about the drugs she prescribes to an adolescent brain which is still in development? Is it ok to publish academic books and articles about your clients when confidentiality is sacrosanct in therapy, and when your subject is too young to give consent?

Katy Rudd has clearly invested a lot of care and sensitivity in this production. She has taken a great cast of talented actors and a wonderful new script and created something really sublime and special.

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee epitomises the energy and lifeforce of a woman trying to keep her child alive having witnessed the horror of her attempting suicide at age seven. After years of relative calm with the aid of psychiatry and medication she is distraught to find that fragile equilibrium shattered as Anna attempts to discover who she is without her medication. As always Hesmondhalgh lights up the stage with her earthy humour and wry intelligence. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is impeccable as the Child Psychiatrist heavily invested in her young client and torn by the therapeutic rupture created by NHS policy that demands Anna move on to Adult Services. Mike Noble is wonderful as the diffident, slightly bemused young suitor. His own troubled background and sense of shame or otherness ensure he “gets” Anna’s experience of being judged. The tragedy being he needs the nurturing of her mother Renee in his life more than he needs the increasingly unwell Anna. I have had to take care of people who should have been taking care of me- Why the fuck would I sign up for one more?

Norah Holden-Lopez continues to astound and is on a real trajectory building on her recent performances in Ghosts and in Our Town. She delivers a sensitive and powerful portrayal of bipolar disorder which is never mawkish or hysterical but is perfectly pitched throughout. She moves apparently effortlessly from a medicated Anna who is managing her move to adulthood with apparent aplomb to a vicious, fractured girl wounding and controlling those who love her with a calculated suicide attempt. In the second act Lopez-Holden is barely recognisable as she further splinters and fractures. It is a terrifying and haunting spectacle and her performance is electrifying.

Designer Susanna Vize has created a glistening, watery hexagon which evokes slippery precipices. A sense of little to cling unto and lots of swirling movement under the surface like the flow of mental processes. The swings descending from the ceiling bring a lightness as Anna and Oliver get to just hang out like any young couple but also reflect the up and down cycling of Anna’s mood as she stops her medication. As Anna floats up higher and higher she is further and further away from Oliver. This new Anna wants to feel lighter and freer but risks plummeting to the ground without treatment. The cage like trap which later surrounds her is sharp and brutal with slats of light splintering around her as though in the electric force field of her own mind. Lucy Carter and Giles Thomas use light and sound respectively to build on this sense of mental torment; jarring and discordant as they wound and disorientate. The overall effect is of the slicing of synapses creating new vivid ideas but also burning through and obliterating other thoughts and feelings.

In the U.K. a tiny 6% of health research is spent on mental health yet one in four of the population will experience some degree of mental health disorder leaving many families living on a precipice. What does a diagnosis mean for their child? A label that stays with their medical records and often defines and dictates their choices in life. What will be the side effects of the drugs, even if they work? What if therapy reveals something even more terrible in a family story? With a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease or cancer we tend to readily accept any treatment that may bring about cure or maintain life. Sadly with mental health we often reject any help through fear of social stigma. My own mother, in the grip of depression actually asked me if I minded her accepting treatment in a psychiatric unit, yet had never thought to question her right to have treatment for cardiac issues. In a modern society it is horrific that mental health is not given the same value as our physical health.

This is a play with a difficult subject matter that contains some scenes that are uncomfortable or distressing to watch. It is also a play that informs and engages and has a lightness of humour and humanity running through it. It explores what form tenderness takes in the face of adversity. It may be a mother crushing pills into her child’s food to keep her child alive, or forcing her to gag after an overdose attempt or shaving her legs for her when she wants to feel pretty. Regardless of whether we choose medication or not, it is essentially about our human need to have someone there with us in the light and also in dark times. I don’t know where I am…..You’re with me.

Royal Exchange until 24th February 2018

Images by Manuel Harlan