Reviews Exeter Published 13 July 2013


Bike Shed Theatre ⋄ 2nd-20th July 2013

Pinched out of existence.

Belinda Dillon

Writing this review of Tidy Carnage’s thoughtful, delicately moving piece dream//life has caused me problems. Not because I didn’t like it – I did, a great deal – but because my perception of it has been in flux since I saw it, meaning that, more than usual, I’m leery of committing my opinion to the page and then sending it off to become a permanent marker of such. dream//life is beautifully performed, tender, and expressive; I laughed and I was moved to tears, such was my connection to Ian (Neil John Gibson) and June (Helen Cuinn). And yet there is something in my reaction to it that I can’t quite pin down”¦

Perhaps here’s why: dream//life is part of a national campaign to raise awareness about Motor Neurone Disease (MND), and has been developed by director Allie Butler in collaboration with MND Scotland; the performance of dream//life at the Bike Shed is accompanied by an information stand in the bar, the showing of I Am Breathing, an absolutely heart-breaking documentary about the last months of MND sufferer Neil Platt’s life, and a Q&A with the company and Cynthia Hopkins, the Exeter & East Devon representative of the MND Association.

I knew next to nothing about MND before this week; now my chest tightens when I think about how it must feel to receive that diagnosis, knowing that as the disease progresses, the nerves in the brain and spinal chord shutting down the signals to the muscles by stealth, the sufferer diminishes physically but remains mentally acute, able just to stare out through eyes that see what has been lost, aware to the last of all that has receded. How absolutely hellish that must be. I think about the pain families must endure as they, in turn, watch their loved one disappear by degrees. My dilemma: do I consider the project as a whole or focus in on the performance piece alone? I’ve been vacillating between the two since I saw it, and it’s only now I realise that this is part of what the piece sets out to achieve – to encourage us to see the whole and not just the details.

From the start we are invited into Ian and June’s relationship, encouraged to explore the performance space, which is arranged with the appurtenances of everyday life: a pillow, vinyl records, a birthday card; mementoes from holidays and from the day to day, evidence of the experiences that make up a shared life. An audio track plays testimony expressing how they feel about life with the disease, about making the best of it, coping. And when we take our seats, June gathers everything up into a cardboard box, examining each item for a moment before consigning it to the past.

For we are immersed in Ian’s dreams, his life outside of the increasingly immobile body in which he is trapped. We share his first date with June, their growing intimacy, their wedding day. As with dreams, scenes shift, slipping and merging into each other; and moments of joy – skipping through the night, hand in hand; singing in a karaoke bar – butt up against brief interjections of Ian motionless and helpless, the animation in his face stripped away. These shifts are beautifully portrayed, particularly a scene that moves from Ian belting out a song in a bar to singing himself clean in the shower to June washing his inert body, her ministrations at first loving and sensual then becoming mechanical through repetition before her despair overwhelms her and she wheels away.

This is a confidently choreographed piece, the movements natural and unforced, revealing the hidden rhythms of a relationship as much as its explicit personality. Although snippets of Ian’s MND existence come through, its focus is on the life lived around it, the laughter and love before it took hold. In inviting us to witness a vibrant personality slipping away, all sense of agency removed, it is incredibly moving – chest-tightening, throat-constricting. Perhaps these physical sensations of sadness alert us to how sufferers might feel as they lose the ability to breathe on their own, to swallow, like being gradually pinched out of existence.

A minor gripe: the wedding day scene is incredibly poignant, but followed by a first dance that goes on too long; that it’s to a terrible song with specific physical actions – which Ian can no longer do, of course, outside his dreams – is the whole point, but nevertheless”¦ Coming in at under an hour, the whole piece is very short, and my initial feeling – and what I was wrestling with – was that it was a little under-developed, that it might not stand on its own without the associated awareness-raising paraphernalia to imbue it with meaning, but the more I think about it, the more effective it becomes. It ends rather abruptly, but the reality is that the real ending would be just too painful to show; I’d much rather we see Ian and June simply walk away together, hand in hand. For then we can imagine our own happy ending for them.


Belinda Dillon

Originally from London, Belinda is an editor and writer now living in Exeter. She goes to as much theatre as the day job will allow. When not sitting in the dark, or writing about sitting in the dark, she likes to drink wine, read 19th-century novels and practice taxidermy. Your cat is very beautiful. Is it old?

dream//life Show Info

Produced by Tidy Carnage

Directed by Allie Butler

Cast includes Neil John Gibson & Helen Cuinn




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