Mary’s son is dead. She doesn’t know how to act. Her oldest friends don’t know what to say, or do. Maybe some wine will help? Grief is a big subject and, much like people, it refuses to conform, to be put in a box. Kat Roberts’ first full-length play, developed by Blackshaw Theatre and bereavement charity SLOW, does much good work exploring the rippling effect of loss while at the same time ruthlessly exposing the faultlines in relationships.
Some of the foot-in-mouth dialogue is so excruciatingly real it makes the audience squirm. We recognise the agony of blundering through conversations at emotionally fraught moments, saying everything except what needs to be said, or being on the receiving end of gross insensitivity from those who should know better: our friends. It’s so painfully familiar and human.
The weight of unresolved feelings, unaired resentments and lingering loyalties between trio of friends, Mary, Jenn and Jack, forms the backbone of the play. All the things which were swept under the carpet when life was plodding along as normal, come oozing out when tragedy strikes.
This is when Robert’s play is at is strongest, in these moments. Mary is a single mum who’s financially and emotionally stable, well-educated, witty – and her son is dead. Shallow, occasionally callous and upwardly mobile Jenn is racked with her own neurosis and her desire for distance is all too understandable, as is Jack’s jittering, passive confusion.
Rachel Notts’ restrained performance as Mary gives the play its heart. Her frustration and loneliness plays just under the surface, as her quips reveal the absurdity of people seen through the fresh eyes of grief. Alexander Pankhurst and Eleanor Burke also do great work as Jack and Jenn, the artificially happy couple, who try to do all the right things; all there’s some beautifully observed stuff in here.
It’s when the play strays from the trio that it falters. Away from the oppressive loyalties of her friends, Mary finds comfort in the directness of strangers. In particular in the company of her builder, Nathan. Brendan Jones puts in a really strong performance as Nathan: from the sharp intake of breath that precedes a discussion about cost, to the telephone conversation with an elderly parent, it’s all golden, even if his characterisation feels contrived, designed to illuminate a theme. The play flags further when other characters are introduced . Ultimately, they are there to highlight the multiplicity of responses to Mary’s grief, but their cluttering presence sometimes neuters the story.
A device in which the actors sharply intake breath before scene changes also feels awkward. It seems out of place in an otherwise naturalist work, adding confusion rather than clarity. This mismatch continues in the design, where endless wine glasses and props are littered about, while other furniture is represented by a child-like tape outlines on the backdrop. While this hints at a life lived on the surface, it jars a little.
While I may be no nearer understanding how it feels to lose a child, Staying Alive is an elegant exploration of how friendships can break down and change under the weight of tragedy. At its core it’s a powerful piece, but as staged here it feels too tricksy to truly shine.