Thursday, 12 January 2017

Art for heart’s sake… HE(ART), Theatre N16

Shane Noone and Flora Dawson. Photo: Jesse Night
You know, you can keep your West End and all that cramped comfort and over-priced ice-cream, if you want to be really moved by theatre make your way to places like Theatre N16 in Balham’s iconic Bedford Arms where you can find yourself genuinely affected – heart-warmed and shaken, not just stirred – by committed performers in close quarters. 

This is a funny play about passionately-imperfect relationships that ultimately leaves you holding your breath and hoping, really hoping, for that “one moment” that can change a character’s life. We all know those moments and we won’t begrudge the opportunity to somebody else.

Director Niall Phillips was drawn to Andrew Maddock’s play by its inclusion of a character, Sam, with Emotional Behaviour Difficulties and in addition to wanting to broaden awareness of the condition, the run includes “relaxed” performances so that young adults with EBD and other anxiety-related conditions can experience the story.

Which just goes to show how many ways there are of telling a story and whilst it would be very interesting to compare that version with tonight’s more explosive dénouement, there’s a warmth at the heart (see what I did…) of this play that moves in gentle and persuasive ways.

Rhys and Alice consider their wall hanging options. Photo: Jesse Night
There are two relationships, art dealer Alice (Alex Reynolds) and her window-cleaning boyfriend Rhys (Jack Gogarty) who must eventually collide with troubled siblings Kev (Shane Noone) and his sister Sam (a hugely-impressive Flora Dawson) who has EBD.

The first thing to note is that the play is exceptionally well presented with the N16’s walls adorned with art and the ceiling over the stage filled with items hanging from string: a Burger King take-away, an iPod, some disinfectant, two guns… all will play their part as the scenes unfold.

As we took our seats the actors were already in character, with Alice and Kev considering the items as if in an art gallery. As the strains of the Isley Brothers’ This Old Heart of Mine trail off we find the couple at opposite ends of art appreciation: Kev not knowing about art or even what he likes and Alice, five years of a Masters in Art behind her, perfectly articulating the finer points.

Alex Reynolds Photo: Jesse Night
It’s like an Antonioni film with male and female incapable of communicating on the same level except through humour – jokes about Roy Lichtenstein and Banksy (“not an artist” for Alice!) – before Kev tries to move into his partner’s court by offering to buy the painting she likes but he really doesn’t get.

Alice is smart and knows her man and suggests leaving the decision for a week to make sure they’re sure… In spite of their class difference these two are a believable couple: well written and well performed. Alice is concerned not just for her lover’s art but also his heart as he has a weak ticker after heart disease as a child and is liable to contract bacterial endocarditis if he is not careful.

Johnny Cash’s Rose of My Heart introduces Sam and Rhys an altogether edgier pairing with an agenda that is only gradually revealed… Rhys is the elder brother who has a robbery planned and has sent Sam to get them some guns. Rhys knows how to play his sister, lauding her as a Wembley Warrior as a way of misdirecting her anxiety at screwing up the deal for the guns. There’s some history with their parents, a lot unsaid and for all Sam’s emotional charge, Kev is the looser cannon.

Flora Dawson and Shane Noone. Photo: Jesse Night
But we learn more about both couples in tightly scripted episodes. Rhys asks Alice for her earliest memory – watching Dumbo (and sure enough there’s a VHS copy hanging from the ceiling!) – whilst is his waiting for a doctor’s appointment. He’s lived his life with his ailment and just wants to get on with things whilst Alice, like his mother before her, is new to this care…

Sam and Kev talk about taking their mother to Colorado but there have been some dark dealings in the past that make it impossible for Kevin to consider meeting her. So many things left unsaid and so much anger: no wonder Kev like Johnny Cash a man forever in search of atonement and that “one moment” of redemption.

Alex Reynolds and Jack Gogarty Photo: Jesse Night
All becomes clear as the couples converge for an epic final scene that I couldn’t possible detail: the whole room held its breath as events hung on a knife edge…

This was transformative theatre – I left Balham far more energised than when I arrived – wellness programmes need to include this art: one of our most ancient.

Alex Reynolds was suitably immaculate as Alice whilst Jack Gogarty’s Rhys matched her so well they just felt like a couple – especially the running gags about porn (you had to be there for the tale of Lolly Badcock) and their willingness to always compromise.

Shane Noone’s Kev was that most difficult of characters a wrong ‘un who you understand as things progress and Flora Dawson’s Sam was a mighty creation: troubled but clever, loyal and loving.

HE(ART) runs at Theatre N16 from the 10th – 29th January. Each performance on a Tuesday will be a relaxed performance. I couldn’t recommend it more highly but don’t be surprised if you end up arguing the pros and cons of street art on your way home…

For more detail on EBD please visit the Social, emotional & behavioural difficulties association site. SEBDA is a charitable organisation and exists to promote the well being of children and young people who are experiencing social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH).

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ****

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