It is moving day. Matty is starting at a new college. His superhero alter ego barricades himself into the bathroom. His mother shouts through the door. No answer. From the looks of it, Matty isn’t going. Thus begins the divide between fiction and reality. In Myrtle Theatre Company’s Up Down Boy, Matty’s superhero self guides us through an imaginary world. And then there’s the real one, recounted by Heather Williams’ mother: Odette. For Nathan Bessell, relating his own experiences through Matty, a 19 year old with Down Syndrome, the real world is not that nice.
This friction continues throughout the show, with Matty taking any opportunity to retreat into daydreams, brilliantly realized through movement sequences paired with Evil Genius’ ebullient projections, creating a dreamscape across the back of Katie Sykes otherwise naturalistic depiction of Matty’s bedroom. When his mother reads him his new school schedule, focused on learning the arduous tasks of looking after oneself (starting with washing machines), Matty is miles away; he’s dancing like Kylie Minogue. In this moment, dull reality is met by dreams, giving insight into how powerful these are for Matty. Admittedly, daydreaming is important for everyone, but for a person in Matty’s position it is vital. In Matty’s fantasy world he can escape harsh definitions thrown at him; he ceases to be “tone-deaf”, but sings to applause from millions. For those alienated from society, fantasy provides freedom.
Many of Matty’s dream segments involve enthralling movement sequences, choreographed by Michelle Gaskell. These moments cross the boundary between Matty’s dreams and his reality, as his dances intertwine with the sign language Matty uses to communicate with his mother, forming a language in which Matty can express himself confidently.
This fantasy realm is cut through with Odette’s struggles to provide Matty with the life and education she believes he deserves. Odette provides astute observations of bureaucratic trials and tribulations, including the power of shoulder pads when challenging an uncaring administration. However, this monologue is problematic. Though she gives us a witty, and moving, depiction of life with Down Syndrome, Odette’s tale takes precedence over Matty’s.
Odette disturbingly describes her anger as strangers, and even friends, ask her how she feels about her son’s condition – would she change it? Though emotive, this is the tale of a mother’s acceptance of having a child with Down Syndrome, rather than the tale of a boy with Down Syndrome. I want to know Matty’s thoughts on his mother’s dark recollections; few people have to deal with their mother being questioned on the topic of their existence – how does this feel? I couldn’t help feeling unsatisfied by Matty’s lack of voice on so many troubling issues.
This is problematic; when something requires a comedic perspective, such as his sibling resembling Dumbo, Matty’s imagination is in flight, yet, when a serious issue arises, such as Matty being sent to a children’s drama class, rather than the teenage one he previously attended, his mother speaks for him. Only at the end, when Matty states he doesn’t want to leave home, does he begin to gain a serious voice.
Considering how beautifully choreographed the movement is, or how comical the superhero is, I wanted to see these non-verbal forms utilized to tackle the serious challenges Matty encounters daily. His fantasy-scape is his way of coping with society, yet these forms are never called on to challenge Matty’s position within society. Once, when Matty had been called a “retard” by a man in a supermarket, he enters the animated world, but even then, it was his mother who attacks him, not Matty.
Ultimately, the theatre is a space in which reality can cease to exist, in which we can challenge barriers safely. Matty routinely frees himself of societal barriers through his active imagination; the theatrical setting provided an opportunity to fully realize these daydreams, and to use them to confront the world that alienates him. The end of the show leaves us in tears, but something about it fails to satisfy. Matty never quite actualizes the superhero inside him and runs away with it. If he did, there’s no doubt we would all go with him.