“Constantly on the move, they change their characters as quickly as they move around and into the Chinese box like set”
What do you do when your country’s politicians take a backwards step and pass something like Section 28 as Britain did in 1988? You take a heartwarming, poetic drama like This Island’s Mine, and produce it for the iconic Gay Sweatshop. Philip Osment’s mostly uplifting drama, filled with positive affirmations of gay life, was a revelation for audiences then and deservedly so. It’s a treat to see the Ardent Theatre Company, under the skilful direction of Philip Wilson, revive it in 2019.
This Island’s Mine — the title taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest, the words spoken by Caliban — follows the stories of a disparate group of people who, for one compelling reason or another, wash up, or are washed up, on the shores of not so swinging London. It is the 1980s after all. There are eighteen characters (including the cat, Vladimir) and in this production, they are seamlessly performed by a talented ensemble cast of seven. Every audience member will have their favorite characters, but the play begins and ends with Connor Bannister’s sweet and eager Luke. Luke is a seventeen year old growing up in an economically devastated north, knowing he is gay, but not knowing how to tell his friends and family.
Osment’s play gives the actors plenty to do. Constantly on the move, they change their characters as quickly as they move around and into the Chinese box like set (design by Philip Wilson) that opens enchantingly to show interior scenes of tender intimacy. Whether it’s Luke’s Uncle Martin, played with just the right amount of world weary charm by Theo Fraser Steele, or watching Tom Ross-Williams shift effortlessly between Londoner Mark and northerner Frank, or Rebecca Todd slip from American Marianne to Shakespeare’s Miranda, we are drawn to these characters and their struggles.
Corey Montague-Sholay impresses with his sensitive but steely Selwyn, a black gay actor who grows up thinking he “was the only one/Who’d been letting the side down.” On top of that, he hilariously shape-shifts into Dave, the ten year old son of Marianne’s lover, Debbie. Rachel Summers takes on four roles, an incredible range of female (and male) characters including a North Carolina African-American and a refugee Russian princess, and then there is the always marvellous Jane Bertish holding the audience spellbound whether she is Miss Rosenblum, struggling to survive after fleeing Nazi Austria, or Vladimir, Princess Irina’s indulged and equally aristocratic cat.
This Island’s Mine at the King’s Head Theatre is a triumph. See it if you can.
“The performers take accomplished material and lift it higher”
Nicholas is a psychiatrist struggling to keep his head above water. The drastically underfunded NHS hospital doesn’t have the resources he needs to be effective in his work, and at home his father is beginning to show signs of dementia. His patients are often hostile and incurable, and – like many burned-out, underpaid healthcare professionals – Nicholas begins to wonder whether the occasional small victories are enough cause to keep fighting what feels like a losing battle.
Writer Philip Osment and theatre company Playing ON have crafted Hearing Things from five years of work with psychiatrists, mental healthcare staff, and patients. The result is a poignant exploration of the UK’s broken mental healthcare system, and the ways it fails those who need it. Osment depicts the touching humanity of his characters on both sides of the doctor/patient fence. His scenes skilfully show how they reach for each other, and the obstacles between them.
The performers take accomplished material and lift it higher. All of them multirole, and none ever leave the stage. The character shifts are sudden, signalled only by a change in posture. Jim Pope successfully portrays Nicholas as a child, a university student, and an adult without any change to his appearance. Daniel Ward gives an outstanding performance as both Innocent, a young schizophrenic patient from Ghana, and Patrick, Nicholas’s father. His transformations are total. Again, without any alteration of wardrobe or appearance – just a hunch in the shoulders, a shift in accent, and a switch flicked behind the eyes – Ward is absolutely convincing as both the young, uncertain man and the intimidating, larger-than-life father.
Jeanette Rourke is a strong performer who plays Janet, a suicidal patient, Grace, Nicholas’s wife, and Hope, Innocent’s mother. However, it was disappointing and a bit uncomfortable to see a Ghanaian woman portrayed by a white actress, with accent and affect. There’s no specified ethnicity for the other two roles (Janet and Grace), so it’s a question why a white actor was cast. Lack of BAME roles, and the whitewashing of those that do exist, is an issue that’s been so passionately fought in the last year, it’s a shame to encounter it already in 2019. It’s a jarring note in the performance.
The fluidity of the play is remarkable. The set morphs as frequently as the characters, and with as little alteration. The stage is a beach – a clever illusion created using carpet and real sand – but it serves as at least five different locations, including the hospital, a house, and Sainsbury’s. That it all works, and works well, is a testament to the exceptional design, lighting, and sound team.
This is a story worth hearing now. In a fraught, overwhelming political climate that makes apathy tempting, Hearing Things reminds us why, even in the most hopeless circumstances, we still try.