Glee & Me

Royal Exchange Theatre

Written by Stuart Slade

Directed by Nimmo Ismail

Lola is 16 and super bright. Lola has big plans. Lola has a future as bright as the interior of her bedroom. And then suddenly Lola has Glee (Glioma Multiforme) and a median life expectancy of 11.2 months. Glee & Me was the winner of the Judges prize at the 2019 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting . Writer Stuart Slade has created something incredibly special in this portrayal of living your best life in the face of your impending death. With this kind of subject matter it is such a delicate line between creating some magical and memorable and producing misery porn… Sykes has done the former.

Director Nimmo Ismail has done an exquisite job of encapsulating the spirit of the writing. Liv Hill ensures that the Lola on stage is the girl next door, the clever, capable girl at college, the daughter you worry about, the mate you’d like your own daughter to have and the bright funny girl that some of us have already seen taken by a lethal brain tumour. Liv Hill shines in this role as she navigates her way through diagnosis, surgery, treatment and hospice care. Never maudlin, she faces life or what’s left of it and makes plans for the future she has. There is a defiance in her actions but increasingly a calm when all she has is each moment in each day. We talk so casually about living in the moment but perhaps nothing quite focuses the mind than impending death.

The play is a one hander yet Hill brings life to those around her…we sense a mother struggling with losing her only child, we meet best friend Clem who helps Lola make her video blog and Rufus her student boyfriend who supports her while valiantly assisting Lola cram in a lifetimes sex into under a year…no mean feat! In short this a production teaming with life. The staging is bright with yellows and pinks while the lighting has pulsating beams that hum and crackle with energy or flash as neurons die as the tumour advances.

Glee & Me is emotive but oddly inspiring and reassuring. I found it impossible not to emerge with moist eyes but mainly it feels uplifting. We are so afraid of death and often so sad and angry when it draws close. It is easy to forget or miss that other core emotion, joy. This is a sublime piece of writing that does not ignore or minimise the fear, the sadness and the anger, but it allows a light to shine on the joy too. The joy we find in sex, in paddling on a beach, making a log fire or simply being with those we love. As Lola says having a finite amount of time…makes everything more – vivid. In the end what remains is love.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11th Sept- 30th Oct

The Almighty Sometimes


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

Interview with Tim X Atack. Winner of The Bruntwood Prize 2017.

The 2017 Winner of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was announced last week at a ceremony at The Royal Exchange Theatre. Tim X Atack was awarded the £16,000 prize for his play Heartworm. The Bristol based composer and sound designer has already had success as a playwright with works such as The Bullet and The Bass Trombone, Dark Land Light House and The Morpeth Carol and has his own company Sleepdogs.

Heartworm was one of 1,898 entries and there were also three Judges Prizes and two commendations. The biennial prize is Britains biggest playwriting competition. It has previously been won by playwrights such as Duncan Macmillan, Alastair McDowell and Katherine Soper. Heartworm will be developed and staged at The Royal Exchange and The Royal Court.

So, a week on, how are you feeling?

Still really elated, it feels pretty surreal as I didn’t expect to get this far. It feels really great to be starting to work on developing it at some point in the New Year.

You say you didn’t expect to get that far, but you submitted almost every time – is this your fifth time?

Yes, this is the fifth.

So there must be something motivating you…..

I think The Bruntwood Prize has always been a kind of deadline in the diary for every grassroots playwright. So I’ve written something nearly every single time but I haven’t necessarily expected it to be better than previous years – it was the same with this play.

So when you look back now over previous submissions and you compare with Heartworm – for you – would Heartworm be the winner?

(Laughs) I think they all have different qualities and I’m surprised that Heartworm connected with so many people and got as far as it did in The Bruntwood. I think it’s surprising in that some of my other plays aren’t as insidiously strange as Heartworm. Some of the others have more of a ring of authorial statement to them, especially the ones I wrote many years ago. In some respects they are the kinds of plays you might expect to connect a little bit more with the language we currently use in playwriting. I’m still working on a few of the others, developing further drafts to hopefully go on to production.

Ah I was hoping you might answer like that! I tend to think of writing plays and nurturing words like bringing up children so you wouldn’t want to favour one over another!!

No, I think that’s absolutely right. I really enjoy working on things over a long period of time. The band I’m in usually release an album about every 6 or 7 years – and the first thing I did when I got back to Bristol after winning was to record some vocals for a song that’s about 12 years old! I like letting things percolate for a while and seeing if they stand the test of time before releasing them into the world. Heartworm took about 2 years to write on and off, but I’ve entered The Bruntwood Prize before with things I’ve been working on for a decade or so in different ways.

So you’re in a band as well?

Yeah, I started my career as a composer and also did other things such as stand up comedy but throughout all that I’ve been in a band – about 23/24 years. Its a radiophonic pop group called Angeltech.

You already know The Royal Exchange as you’ve been working on the sound production for Jubilee….

That’s right. Its been an astonishing production to work on, it really felt like a very, very progressive show to be a part off. I was very proud of it, and it was also a riot of fun to do too…..

Fun in terms of the cast? Or working with Chris Goode?

Working with the cast, working with Chris, working with The Royal Exchange which was a fantastic theatre to do this in – it really feels like we’ve been given the run to do whatever we need to do for that particular production. Chris Goode runs an amazing rehearsal room. He’s a very collaborative person and it is really shows in the way he invites his cast and creatives in to put a lot of themselves into what’s happening in the rehearsal room.

I interviewed Pauline Mayers in June, she said exactly the same about him. We are lucky to have him at The Royal Exchange……So was this your first time working there?

I was at The Studio space while on tour a few years ago with my own company, Sleepdogs. It was a one man show called The Bullet and the Bass Trombone about a symphony orchestra that gets caught in a city during a military coup.

How did it feel to be currently working here and then accepting the Bruntwood on the same stage?

It was like a weird cheese dream especially when I saw people I’d been working with up in the tech desk. Some of the cast came to the ceremony so I could hear cheers from the gallery and recognise their voices because I’d been working with them for so long.

You have a very good ear for voices, sounds… does that give you an extra dimension as a writer when it comes to pacing and dialogue?

Yeah, I think it does. If there’s one thing I can say I definitely have as a writer is a kind of musical attitude to putting stuff together. I really enjoy soaking up the way that people talk and transferring that into the words I create. There’s always a sense of finding counterpoint melodies and textures that work interestingly opposite each other in the same way as if you mixed a piece of music. One of the reasons a lot of what I write has a kind of culture clash at the heart of it is because I’m always fascinated by what happens when these different kinds of music collide. I think that probably comes from growing up in Rio de Janeiro. Brasil is one of the world’s great melting pot cities – all kinds of voices and approaches to life there.

So Tim, all those possible voices – who would be your dream cast for Heartworm?

Laughs. Im going to annoy you now. I don’t tend to think about stuff like that. I love collaborating and I enjoy the surprises that come from the casting process. There are several things in particular about Heartworm such as I’ve stipulated in the script than none of the cast are white. The casting will require finding performers who are at ease around the dreamlike language that the play uses. I can already imagine about 10 -15 ways of performing Joni K who is the most vocal character in the play. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people do when they sink their teeth into the script.

How would you describe Joni K? Who is she?

I’m reluctant to expand on much detail which is not always the case with my plays. A lot of my works have definitely had thematic concerns but Heartworm is genuinely an exception to that. The weird thing about Joni is kind of the only definitive question that the play seems to be asking over and over again is – “Who is she?” Im really keen that the audience have the chance and the space to answer that in their own personal ways.

I was intrigued by the extract I saw at the awards ceremony. There are all sorts of thoughts going on wondering what was pulling her back to her childhood home.

The room that she is standing in is the bedroom she grew up in, in what is ostensibly a house belonging to complete strangers. I was intrigued by the questions that might race through your mind in that moment if you were the couple renting out that room. That’s what I wanted to explore.

I recently had the chance to go back and see my childhood home and the changes made to it. The thought made me feel almost physically sick.

The idea of seeing your childhood painted over makes you feel woozy doesn’t it? The idea came from thoughts of heading back to Brazil again. I’ve been once since childhood but was thinking of going for longer this time. When looking at staying in AirBnBs I found myself looking closer and closer to the street I grew up on, and thinking how weird it would be if I was able to see the flat I shared with my family.

I used that premise with Joni as a starting point to explore some complicated emotions that were bubbling up in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I decided to follow almost a dreamlike process with absolutely no idea where it would lead. I wrote it in linear fashion from start to finish and was genuinely surprised myself by some of the turns it took. It was like an improvisatory process of what I might like to see on stage and I allowed myself to go wherever it felt right to go, no matter how disconcerting or self-revealing it might be. Looking back I can see some of the influences and broad emotions – the main ones being grief and loss.

Did it feel cathartic writing it?

Absolutely. If there are two kinds of human rituals – those of confirmation and those of transformation then I tend to focus on the transformatory. I prefer to write about what could this be?….. What might this be?….. Isn’t the Universe strange….

Do you think that might have been what connected the Judges to this piece?

Maybe. I’ve no idea. The judging process remains closed to me apart from what was said at the ceremony.

What would your advice be to anyone thinking of submitting for The Bruntwood Prize?

To just write, keep on writing, keep on entering. I think I’d particularly encourage an idea of writing something you would like to see on a stage no matter what the implications of that are. No matter how you think plays are produced, or normally look on stage – if there’s something you’d like to feel or experience on stage put it on paper and send it to The Bruntwood Prize. I thought I was writing something particularly personal and strange, yet it turns out of all the things I submitted that this has been the most successful.