Myrtle Theatre’s Up Down Man is the sequel to their previous Up Down Boy. Whereas the first show focused on a mother’s approach to raising a child with Down Syndrome, this show looks at what happens when that child becomes an adult and the mother dies. It deals with some weighty issues – responsibility, independence, remorse – but with a light touch which allows the work to delight at the same time as it challenges.
In one way it is a very simple show, using a small moment in a family’s story to reflect back on regrets and doubts and forward onto hopes and fears. This is carried by the nuanced writing which manages to allow the characters to be questioned without them being demonised. The sense of love that permeates through the family is palpable and the script is aided by the fantastic performances. Nathan Bessell is the stand-out star but he is perfectly matched by Emily Bowker, Joe Hall and Heather Williams as his family. The group form one of those theatrical families that you really believe could be real – that you could leave the theatre and see them getting into the car to go home together.
There are, however, one or two moments where it seems the play doesn’t quite trust its own strength; notably where direct address is used to tell the audience things that are clear from the dialogue scenes. While these monologues contain some beautiful language and observations, the larger scenes are so full of vitality – mixing sentiment and humour, fantasy and reality, the dead and the living – that the absence of the other characters is felt when they aren’t included in the action.
The single time when the solo work is as effective as the large dialogue scenes is with Bessell’s dance sections. By using a different kind of language these passages support what the audience has already seen without repeating it. Abstract movement seamlessly slips into comic mime in a mirror of the mixed tone of the show, perfectly choreographed by Bryn Thomas who joins Bessell in a beautiful duet.
This delicate, dream-like quality that the dance gives to the play is equally supported by the music, lighting and set. Recorded music (composed by Keiran Buckeridge) combines with Arran Glass’ live guitar to great effect, supporting both the movement and the dialogue in a playful way. Michael Straun’s lighting was some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in a while. Pastel and bright hues mix with one another and the textured surface of Katie Syke’s set to produce an image which shifts from watercolour to stained glass to dreamscape. The design elements feel like they hold the characters, allowing their emotions to spill out and colour the stage around them, but giving them space when they need it.
Up Down Man is a perfect example of every element of a production working in harmony to deliver a story. This is a touching and funny work which left me hoping it proves to be the second part of a trilogy.
Up Down Man is on until 18 November 2018 at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol. Click here for more details.