“a wonderful display of talented performances with a script not quite up to scratch”
A tragedy doesn’t just befall the victim in the middle, it happens to so many people. One Under explores the effects of loss, ownership of grief, and the sometimes-bizarre ways we deal with it, whether we knew the person or not.
Sonny (Reece Pantry), a good-natured and well-loved young man full of potential, jumps in front of a train. His mother (Shenagh Govan) and sister (Evlyne Oyedokun) are left to manage their understandable grief. Train driver Cyrus (Stanley J. Browne) finds himself incapable of moving past the incident, and takes on the mystery of Sonny’s suicide, insistent that the story is more complicated than it might seem. We’re also privy to Sonny’s last day before his death, in which he decides to anoint himself the guardian angel of Christine (Clare-Louise English), a complete stranger.
The story works best when we’re unsure of how it will all piece together. Dialogue is playful and snappy; various relationships are displayed organically, painting a true-to-life image. But as soon as we reach an attempt at clarity- I’d say about an hour in- it all starts to drag a little. Each plotline is too complex to meet any other with any kind of harmony, as though writer Winsome Pinnock had lots of ideas, but no ending in mind.
The first ten minutes are also distractingly confusing, as Govan plays both a jaded fellow train driver trying to down-play Sonny’s death, and, in the following scene, his grieving mother. It’s unclear for too long that these are two different people. I’m sure casting director Sarah Hughes was working to a budget, but maybe next time splash out and get someone to step in for the first role. That being said, Hughes has done a splendid job otherwise. Govan as the mother perfectly balances force and affection; her relationships with both her children seem well-worn and honest. Pantry is spectacular, showing the full range of someone on the brink. English, too, expresses incredible nuance, full of kindness whilst distrustful of others’ good nature.
The scenery (Amelia Jane Hankin), though very pretty, doesn’t work. Two free-standing wooden shelves bow over the stage, carefully curated with plants and artfully stacked books. Scenes come and go in various locations, and I’m waiting for the backdrop to make sense. It’s possible it suits a scene in a hotel, or maybe Sonny’s flat, but the story takes place in a bunch of different places, so it really doesn’t make sense even if it were either of those, and it’s unclear either way.
The main trouble, though, is that within this one play, Pinnock has enough material for a series, following various characters, each with their own story, each suffering in their own private way. But in attempting to squeeze it in to one plot under two hours, she’s lost the thread. I would love to see this story properly unpacked, but for now, One Under, as directed by Amit Sharma, is a wonderful display of talented performances with a script not quite up to scratch.
“being brave enough to leave parts of the story untold pushes this drama into a different league”
A young man jumps in front of a train. An act witnessed by the driver, Cyrus (Stanley J. Browne) who sits and waits to be interviewed by the police. His colleague reassures him that this will all be textbook. A few questions, make a statement. Cyrus will be offered a few weeks off work to recover. His colleague urges him to keep his testimony short and to the point; no ifs or buts. No-one wants an inquest.
But Cyrus has doubts – did the boy wave at him, just before he jumped? Did he mean to jump at all? We fast forward a few months, meeting Nella, the boy’s mother. She has befriended a local man, eager to help out doing jobs around the house, digging the garden. Cyrus has found the boy’s family, and makes himself indispensable. He is convinced that Sonny (Reece Pantry) has left clues behind. An unfinished drink, a launderette ticket. The fall is just the start of the story.
Cyrus begins an obsessive journey into Sonny’s last days – he urges Nella to remember any detail that may help, while Sonny’s sister Zoe (Evlyne Oyedokun) becomes aware of the stranger who has worked his way into her mother’s life. As she learns more about him, it becomes clear that Cyrus’ motivation runs far deeper than the cleansing of guilt.
Like every good thriller, One Under doesn’t leave us with every plot point examined; some threads are left exposed. What this production does especially well is to focus on the complex web of relationships that tell the story.
Diving in and out of the past, we are piecing together the narrative, a chain of events, just like Cyrus. We are led through a maze, first this possibility, then the next. But here, every false turn leads us closer to the truth. It isn’t until the final scene, and the last card is revealed, that we uncover a truth far more unsettling than previously imagined.
One Under, written by Winsome Pinnock, tackles some weighty subjects: suicide, trauma, the impact of grief. But cleverly, Pinnock frames the play’s ideas about these subjects against a handful of characters. To counter the dark nature of what is being discussed, Pinnock applies a lightness of touch – a spare set, just a few props and a cast of five. It stops us from feeling overwhelmed – it also gives the moments of heightened drama a real potency. Director Amit Sharma keeps a tight hold of the story; moving us quickly from past and present, home and work; perception and reality.
During the play’s 90 minutes, we become acquainted with the characters. A mother’s grief – so clearly visible that she clings to the kindness of strangers; a man haunted by an accident, turning his life upside down in the pursuit of answers. The cast work together beautifully, with Clare Louise English as Christine, and Shenagh Govan as Nella, in particular grounding the play with an emotional realism.
By using the thriller genre, One Under moves away from the ordinary; a sense of the domestic shifts dramatically into tension and fear. The key change is palpable, as the energy moves, and we find ourselves wrong-footed yet again.
One Under is a keenly enjoyable experience – and being brave enough to leave parts of the story untold pushes this drama into a different league. Complex and darkly satisfying, One Under proves that when drama moves beyond formula, anything can happen.