Monday, 1 July 2013

Theatre review: Responsible Other

Sometimes, it turns out, it actually is Lupus. At least it is for 15-year-old Daisy (Alice Sykes) who, in Melanie Spencer's Responsible Other, has the disease whose obscurity and mass of possible symptoms made it a weekly suspect for Dr House. Only a couple of years after her mother's death from cancer, Daisy has been diagnosed with the disease that turns the immune system against itself, and in her case is making kidney failure a real possibility. Weekly chemotherapy could help, but her father Peter (Andy Frame) is struggling to stay afloat as a single parent, and the trips from Northampton to St Thomas' Hospital would mean missing more work than he can afford to. In desperation he turns to the sister-in-law he hasn't seen since Daisy was a baby: Diane (Tricia Kelly) is a recluse with a history of mental illness, and the thought of accompanying the niece she barely knows to London is terrifying to her.

Spencer's play shines a light on a little-known illness - or as much of a light as it can given the variety of ways Lupus can manifest, and the fact that medical science still has a lot to learn about it. But of course its main focus is on the people affected by illness, and the various strains they're put under.

The promising Sykes' performance as Daisy throws both the frustrations of illness and the natural surliness of a teenager into the mix to create a difficult but understandable character, whose relationships fracture in all directions: With exhaustion being one of the symptoms, she's having to stay home from school and despite the best efforts of her friend Alice (Candassaie Liburd) they're inevitably drifting apart as Alice finds new people to spend time with in Daisy's absence. The one relationship that's getting better is the new one with her aunt, Kelly delivering a terribly likeable, fragile oddball performance.

The play's wrongly billed as a bittersweet comedy in the publicity; bittersweet it may be but it's a drama with the occasional comic moment. Many of these come from the odd-couple friendship that builds while Daisy is off getting treatment, between the introverted Diane and Bola (Yetunde Oduwole,) a gregarious Nigerian nurse happy to loudly share her daily tribulations in dealing with her mother-in-law. There's certainly little light relief for Frame, whose Peter convincingly carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.

As far as I can tell from the programme notes, Spencer is an experienced director making her playwrighting debut and the play is certainly flawed: Despite its many short scenes it feels oddly slow-paced, with a few superfluous moments -  a scene between Peter and his daughter's teacher (Danielle Bux) feels unnecessary, and might perhaps have been cut had the writer not been directing her own work. The ending also feels a little abrupt, as if Spencer stopped the action at an almost arbitrary point As far as the production goes, designer Emma Tompkins' highly naturalistic living room set seems an odd choice given how much of the action takes place elsewhere. And Tom Hackley's sound design has the ever-irritating trait of repeating the same few seconds of music for many of the scene changes.

But for all its imperfections there's a lot that's interesting about Responsible Other. Illnesses of various kinds are often covered in theatre (indeed in this venue) but this feels like it's got a fairly fresh take on the subject, and the performances ensure a few rather moving moments.

Responsible Other by Melanie Spencer is booking until the 20th of July at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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