Suicide isn’t an easy subject for the stage. Approached badly, it can be insensitive, even damaging. (It might be years later but I’m still angry at the play McQueen, which took a shallow, glossy romp through real people’s pain without an ounce of audience care, and sent me into a depressed funk it took a long, hard week to shake off). So I admit I was somewhat wary of No Miracles Here, which puts suicidal inclinations against the backdrop of a dance marathon and sets them to a toe-tapping soundtrack.
Unlikely as it seems, though, the show works surprisingly well. In great part, this is due to the obvious consideration and sensitivity The Letter Room have taken in its presentation. There are content warnings in the theatre foyer, helpline numbers for Mind and the Samaritans printed on the (free) programme. Small things, easy enough to do – but so often absent from even the most punishing of productions.
The play itself smartly written, performed with heart and possessed of real emotional heft. At its centre is Stan Hodgson’s sympathetic turn as Ray. Quiet, awkward, ‘dressed like a man whose mam still buys his socks and underpants’, Ray seems to be one of life’s losers: failing at his dead-end job, living at home and socially isolated, he has decided the one bit of control he can exert over his life is to end it.
But, come the big day, his plans are – at least temporarily – derailed by his colleagues’ invitation to a dance marathon contest. It’s his last night on earth, he reasons, so why not? Over the course of the dance, secrets are exposed, weaknesses laid bare, and Ray finds that sheer perseverance brings its own reward.
It’s not a particularly sophisticated or original revelation – everyone is going through something, and once you open your eyes to that, it becomes a lot easier to cope with your own troubles. But the piece sells it well, aided by strong performances from the multi-talented cast, who also sing and play their instruments.
Michael Blair excels as the sleazy co-worker whose bravado hides insecurity and loneliness. Alex Tahnee – seen recently in the touring production of Fans – is a no-nonsense delight as the dancer whose competing career is over, but who now stands on the sidelines, dispensing health and safety advice and segments of orange, and with whom Ray forges an unlikely connection.
Meghan Doyle (who also directs) is engaging as Ida, different only from Ray in that she better hides her despair, while Alice Blundell is deliciously dry as the self-assured Clyde. (There’s a rare and particular joy to seeing on stage a confident woman whose assurance isn’t used as the set up for her demolition. When she responded to the cheesy line, ‘Do you know how good you look?’ with a caustic, ‘yes, I was there when I got dressed’, my heart did some dancing of its own). Special praise must go to Niall Kerrigan who, we are informed before the show, has stepped in at the last minute and learned the whole thing in under a week – none of which is evident from his smooth, assured performance.
Jeremy Bradfield’s songs – ranging from achingly tender to foot-stompingly catchy – punctuate rather than drive the narrative, but the whole thing is performed with such verve it’s difficult to resist.
There’s an argument to be had, of course, over its rather simplistic message: that depression can be cured by connection and kindness, rather than, say, a professionally prescribed course of medication. If your brain chemistry is off-kilter, a hug from your co-worker isn’t going to cure you. And the piece rather loses sight of some of its other characters – Ida, in particular, feels abruptly discarded, even though her struggles are no less serious than Ray’s.
But the production is admirably aware of its limitations – that everyone’s dance is not the same, but solidarity and solace can be found in shared experience. And it’s hard not to be swayed by the humanity of the piece and the optimism at its core, which manages to turn a tough, tricky subject into an ultimately uplifting piece of theatre.
No Miracles Here was at Northern Stage from 15-16 February, and tours until 23 March. More info here.