Cheltenham Everyman Studio
“We’re not going to treat him any differently.”
Up Down Boy is an uplifting comedy full of charm and touching moments. A tale about a young man with Down’s syndrome preparing to leave home with his mother’s determined encouragement as he begins this new journey. Myrtle Theatre Company have collaborated with new writer Sue Shields to tell a coming-of-age story inspired by her experiences and anecdotes whilst bringing up her own son, Nathan Bessell, who plays the character Matty in this production.
Matty’s mother, Odette, sincerely and sympathetically played by Heather Williams, naturally voices out loud her thoughts, concerns and memories as a constant narrative throughout the play, as she prepares to launch her beloved youngest son into the adult world.
Her teenage son, Matty, is preparing to leave for college; her son that she has brought up with his five brothers and sisters; her son who has Down’s syndrome, but who she has always resolved to treat no differently to his siblings.
The most difficult challenges for their family have not come from within the home, but have been due to the outside prejudices of people and situations, bureaucracy and lack of understanding where and when they have needed it most.
The play does not dwell on these darker moments though; Shields’ writing gives precedent to the reminiscent anecdotes experienced throughout Matty’s young life. The audience are taken on his journey, learning about the lives of both these characters on stage and how they feel about this moment in time; understanding the gradual acceptance that this devoted mother and her son have had to come to terms with in order for him to leave home and begin an independent life.
The play is built upon this relationship between a mother and her son. Williams’ mostly one-sided conversation as Odette, telling stories that burst with realism, make up the main dialogue of the play with occasional contributions from Bessell, but more important than speech is the instinctual sign-language that he employs. The transition from spoken dialogue to sign-language is mesmeric when it occurs; the organic movements complimenting these intimate family exchanges.
Michael Straun’s lighting is refreshingly uncomplicated; focus is given to the storytelling without distracting from the action on stage. The scene is clearly set in the cosy atmosphere and reality of Matty’s bedroom, sometimes emphasising the tender moments shared between mother and child, and then in contrast – the vivid imagination that he possesses and escapes into…
The audience glimpse the world through Matty’s eyes when it is projected onto the rear wall of the space in animated scenes, accompanied by a playful soundtrack composed by John O’Hara. These cartoon shorts, provided by Evil Genius Animations, depict a dramatic fantasy world that Bessell performs in front of, either in choreographed dance routines or movement that physically interacts with the projections. Bessell is an amazingly disciplined actor with great commitment and timing, obviously dedicated to bringing this story to life with an honest integrity and an immense warmth and respect that is shared between both actors.
Shields’ debut play opens a window into the world that she knows, a world that she is not alone in, but one that many might approach hesitantly. The story unfolds without airs or graces or any pretence; the audience are privileged in essentially witnessing an intimate hour of these characters’ lives at an extremely poignant, life-changing moment in time.
What results is a wonderfully moving theatrical experience that leaves us heartened, full of hope and with a greater insight and understanding of what it means to grow up and let go, whatever our challenges in life might be.
Myrtle Theatre Company’s production Up Down Boy, in association with Salisbury Playhouse, was written by Sue Shields and directed by Heather Williams and Gareth Machin, and is on tour until the end of November 2013.