Actor and Kneehigh Theatre stalwart Tristan Sturrock first unveiled this autobiographical solo show as part of Ferment, the ongoing development programme initiated at Bristol Old Vic a couple of years ago. Back then it was called Frankenspine – My Big Break and it was under that title that he staged it again in April last year. Since then, as well as a change of title, it’s undergone yet more development and reappears now in a slightly refocused and slimmed-down version.
To recap: it’s 2004. Sturrock’s living in Padstow, Cornwall, with his pregnant partner Katy Carmichael (his director here), in a cottage at the top of a zigzagging flight of steps. On the eve of Mayday – when Padstow celebrates the arrival of summer with a huge, raucous and unique celebration featuring the Obby Oss (a grotesque pagan figure) and rather a lot of singing, boozing and carousing – Sturrock pops out to buy Katy a bag of chips. En route he nips into the pub for a swift one, which rapidly turns into a lengthy drinking spree, and it’s only long after midnight that he remembers he was supposed to be buying some chips. It’s too late for that now so he sets off for home. Halfway up the zigzagging steps, Katy rings him on his mobile, so he stops, sits down on a wall and promptly falls backwards. The next thing he knows he’s lying at the foot of the wall, paralysed and hardly able to speak. As he discovers when Katy and a neighbour eventually find him, he’s broken his neck.
Given that Sturrock is standing in front of us on stage, we know that he makes a full recovery, but the story of that long, slow journey nevertheless remains powerful, moving and, at times, very funny. To be honest, it’s not a story which requires a great deal of dressing up to generate its emotional impact, and this new version strips out some of Frankenspine’s showier set-pieces. The lip-synching, top-hat-and-tails dance routine’s gone (although there is a manic, drunken stumble round the pub dressed as the Obby Oss instead), while the most significant change, perhaps, is that Sturrock no longer draws explicit parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by playing out the climactic scenes in Hammer Horror style.
That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t still episodes of high theatricality: the opera-backed recreation of the operation to repair Sturrock’s neck by bolting his shattered vertebra back together remains a highlight, as does the utter stillness and fragility of the moments immediately following the accident. In paring down and fine-tuning the script, though, Sturrock has subtly shifted the balance of the show, reining in his natural exuberance as a performer, bringing out the themes of his story more firmly and giving its poignant emotional content more room to breathe. What was already a fine and engaging piece of autobiographical storytelling is now just that little bit finer and more engaging as a result.