STAYING ALIVE, Pleasance Theatre - Review

"Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone." So says the old saying, a cliché that unfortunately has some truth to it. In the 21st century, pretty much everything is up for grabs for discussion, but death is still the last taboo.

Written by Kat Roberts in collaboration with SLOW – a charity that supports bereaved parents and directed by Ellie Pitkin – Staying Alive follows the emotional journey of single mother Mary Evans (Rachel Nott) whose son, Henry, has died suddenly in an accident.

Her closest friends Jenn (Eleanor Burke) and Jack Wiltshire (Alexander Pankhurst) try their best to "do friendship" – helping out in practical matters and inviting her to their home regularly, but they struggle to find the vocabulary or experiences to relate to Mary's depression. What they don't realise is that the distractions they're providing for Mary are putting off the inevitable, and instead of allowing her to embrace how she's feeling, she's collected and 'together' for their sake because they aren't.

Enter Nathan (Brendan Jones) the builder, who comes to replace the offending window that played its part in Henry's death. Blunt of speech but honest and straight talking, Nathan is a breath of fresh air to Mary, who has had enough of her 'Job's comforters'. However, their relationship hits its own rocky patch, as they grow almost too candid with each other and Nathan's patience reaches its limit...

Nott delivers a nuanced performance as Mary, understated initially but no less effective, allowing the dry humour of the play to manifest organically. Her composure in the second half of the play when the emotional floodgates burst open is nothing short of Vesuvian – an impassioned declaration of her raw, aching soul that would move even the most stoic of people.

As Jack, Pankhurst's frustration at his inability to comfort Mary is palpable, as is his feelings for her versus those for Jenn who he seems to have little in common with.

On the surface Burke's Jenn is not quite so empathetic to Mary and generally not on the same wavelength as Jack. However behind her Beverly-esque episodes and sometimes less-than-sympathetic demeanour lies a woman in pain. She has always known that Jack's heart's always 'belonged' to Mary, that she and Jack are very different people and that the death of Henry could be the final nail in the coffin for their marriage too.

It's not often you see plays with characters from the Midlands, even fewer that make a point of differentiating between different cities and areas in the region (as opposed to lumping it together as a homogenous area as is usually the case). This attention to detail plays a big part in the development of Nathan's character and the bugbears that stem from his idiosyncrasies.

It would be remiss of me to miss Emily Rae and Stephen Ashmore-Blakely, who play Sarah and Will respectively and a number of other roles. Asides from being friends with the Wiltshires, Will in particular shows that the act of being economical with the truth for the sake of others can become second nature, leading to a compulsion to be 'creative' all the time...

I suspected Staying Alive would be a good play, but upon watching it I realised how complete it is – the structure, the performances and direction, the emotionally-true characters... This is no fluke though. It's 18-months' hard work, from its inception as a 10-minute play to workshops and rewrites until the finished product we have today. Proof that given enough time, talent and perseverance, theatre that really says something about the human condition can be made.

© Michael Davis 2015

Staying Alive runs at the Pleasance Theatre, London until 29th November 2015.

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