Not too long ago Adam Pownall, the agile actor leaping around the stage, lay in a hospital bed. He was paralysed from head to toe. Guillain Barré Syndrome had knocked out his nervous system and his family waited anxiously as he was wheeled to intensive care at risk of a massive heart attack.
Among a scattering of grey, hollow polygons sit a pair of young people whispering excitedly. As the audience hushes they turn their chatter to us. Together with his co-actor Kitty Randle, Pownall sweeps us along in his journey through sickness and back to health with a charming sense of humour and charisma. Randle’s role mutates throughout the hour-long play, at one point switching from a cousin to the syndrome itself in an eerily choreographed scene.
“I’ve come to help,” she cries, alluding to the immune system’s aim to attack a virus – but alas the syndrome had damaged nerve roots and sent Pownall’s body into turmoil. Without warning, Randle flips to become a malicious presence. She taunts him, poking fun at his inability to blink his dry eyes in the hospital unit.
Writer Nick Wood’s interviews with the family bring lighter moments to this dark reenactment of Pownall’s head-dive into full paralysis. “Couldn’t you even wheel the wheelie bins?” his mother remembers having scolded at the time. At another point, Pownall mulls over the painful sight of his brother’s puffy face gulping and reassuring him that he’ll be fine – while all the patient wanted was to hear the usual mockery that he’d do anything for a bit of attention.
The family’s tight-knit reaction to Pownall’s ill-health manifests itself in the title of the play, a phrase spoken by his sister, Emma. She reminisces on how he stubbornly willed himself back to independence – while enduring a long, harrowing stint in GP surgeries, hospital wards and eventually rehab. “Getting better slowly,” she describes, subconsciously mimicking the initials of the syndrome that suppressed her once (and now) lively brother.
The script hops between tones with the characters sometimes laughing at the absurdity of it all; at other times dropping into a more downcast beat. The fascinating dynamic of a patient addressing his syndrome lets us glimpse at the emotional turmoil Pownall suffered whilst in his frozen physical state.
This new writing is the product of great thought and feeling, both on the part of the writer and his real-life characters. In the author’s note, Nick Wood tells of how he fought against the lazy journalistic implication that those who don’t survive are somewhat to blame as they “didn’t fight hard enough”.
It’s true: the play manages to avoid both heroising the central character and damning him as a tetchy, overwrought victim figure. Onstage he weaves in the wonderfully wicked twine of his personality, improvising occasionally with quirks and gestures on top of the script.
The props are few and far between, but an affecting touch comes from Pownall’s interaction with a little wooden doll – the sort held upright by strings but knocked limp when the strings loosen. It’s hard to imagine, now, Pownall collapsed over himself like his puppet. Yet, as we’re reminded in one hospital scene, he only had a 70% chance of a getting better.
The fine path trodden between acting a script and one’s own life creates a paradoxically entertaining performance of an illness most people have never heard of, let alone experienced. Along with being entertaining theatre, Getting Better Slowly also has the potential to educate the audience about a rare medical condition and making a recovery.