Review: ★★★ One Under, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Review: ★★★ One Under, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

“It isn’t all brutality round these parts. There’s some tenderness here.” One Under brings light to the questions raised when families and strangers become connected by grief.

Dark, tender and deeply unnerving, Graeae’s new version of One Under deftly weaves seemingly disparate stories and fairytale motifs to create a tapestry of grief. This poignant performance sheds light on the lives of those left behind by death, though it could have packed a stronger punch.

Director Amit Sharma breathes new life into the warm dialogue of Winsome Pinnock’s 2005 script, creating a space where characters’ lives bleed into one another in the sparse, flexible stage space as their connections to Sonny (skilfully played by Reece Pantry) and his death unfold. The gradual unravelling of their stories invites a careful consideration of mental health and all its layered complexities in a way that feels particularly salient in 2019.

Graeae’s emphasis on D/deaf performers and audience inclusion is subtly incorporated as part of the set through the use of surtitles that initially act as a train times screen for the London Underground, allowing accessibility to be aesthetically integrated into the site of Sonny’s death. The surtitles also allow us to keep track of which stories are taking place, with one screen reading the stories prior to his death, and one screen reading those that occur in the aftermath. 

We begin with train driver Cyrus, played by Stanley J. Browne, who is left struggling to comprehend the suicide that has taken place in front of his train. Over the course of the play, we see his increasingly frantic attempts to piece together the reasons for Sonny’s death, playing with thriller and mystery tropes as he examines every detail and possible clue. Browne’s intense delivery conveys the guilt-ridden desperation of a man seeking closure, though some stilted moments leave room for a possibly needed tenderness.

We are invited into the lives of Sonny’s family through the heartwarming interactions of Zoe and Nella, who are mother and sister to Sonny respectively. Shenagh Govan’s portrayal of Nella is a stand-out performance in her deeply touching approach, whose fierce maternal drive makes her grief all the more heartbreaking. Evlyne Oyedokun’s Zoe acts as a foil to Browne’s obsessive Cyrus and provides a more grounded, more nuanced insight into the mourning process.

Nuance, however, falls short with the adventures of Sonny and Christine, played by Clare-Louise English. The two have a playful connection that, while enjoyable, grows a little stale. English’s cheeky Christine becomes slightly one-note, and leaves a want for the punch of her own experience of grief to hit harder. Pantry’s performance as Sunny improves over the course of the play, with a particularly arresting interaction with Govan towards the end that brings the reality of his final days to the fore.

One Under provides a candid insight into suicide and those who are affected by it, inserting brief bursts of joy that highlight the pain while reminding us that life must, and will, go on. Its drip-feeding structure is suspenseful at times and drags at others, while other moments that beg to be stewed in move all too quickly. The tender connections between the characters, however, are what drive the heart of the play, implicitly (and rightfully) asking us all to hug our loved ones a little tighter. 

 

Hayley Gow

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