It starts with a death. A man under a train – the ‘one under’ of the title – a horrified driver, a pragmatic colleague advising that some time off and some distance from the event will cure all, step back and let the system do what the system does, don’t dwell. From there the play spins both backwards and forwards in time, as we unravel the last hours of the man who jumped (or did he?) onto the tracks and the man who drove the train that killed him.
A new version of the 2005 Winsome Pinnock play, One Under is a story of family (real and imagined), murky motives and half-truths. Tube driver Cyrus (Stanley J. Browne), no longer employed, is keeping himself busy doing odd jobs and gardening for Nella (Shenagh Govan) – but are his reasons as benign as they seem? Certainly, Nella’s adoptive daughter Zoe (Evlyne Oyedokun) has her doubts, but is she keeping secrets of her own? Meanwhile Sonny (Reece Pantry) is wooing kind-hearted laundry worker Christine (Clare-Louise English), but are his outlandish tales just a bold tactic for seduction, or do they hide a darker truth? And how do all these stories tie together?
The cast all do well in their roles. Shenagh Govan gives us a sense of the pain beneath Nella’s brisk pragmatism, and while we get only a glimpse of the easy-going man Cyrus was before the incident, Browne is empathetic as a man rocked by tragedy and desperate for answers. Evlyne Oyedokun is spiky and brittle as the daughter who always worried she was second best and channels that into over-protectiveness, and Reece Pantry’s Sonny is mercurial and charming, but with a fragility bubbling beneath the surface – it’s easy to see why he manages to win over the down-to-earth but vulnerable Christine (a nicely nuanced turn from English), despite a courtship that stretches credulity to breaking.
A co-production by Graeae Theatre Company (which specialises in plays centring Deaf and disabled artists) and Theatre Royal Plymouth, the show is captioned and audio described (which shouldn’t be such a rarity it needs commenting on, but here we are) and the captions are worked nicely into Amelia Jane Hankin’s set, with the tube arrivals board notice switching seamlessly into a screen for the captions.
Although it is keen to explore the human story behind what is seemingly a random, if tragic, event, Pinnock’s script is admirably comfortable with unanswered questions – the fact that we may never fully understand another’s interior life, or know how much of what they say is true. It tackles both grief and mental illness sensitively – Sonny’s suicide and the build to it is handled with care (and content warnings abound, so it never feels like a cheap shock sprung on an unwary audience). But despite solid work from the cast and director Amit Sharma, it’s never as compelling as it could be. Uneven pacing means the piece fails to build the momentum or tension it needs, and although the characters aren’t merely two-dimensional, it also never feels like we get very far beyond the surface. The result is the story doesn’t quite cohere as it should, making for an ultimately frustrating experience.
One Under ran at Live Theatre from 12-13 November. It tours to Birmingham, Salisbury and London in November and December. More info here.