The other week I was lucky enough to view the dress rehearsal of Up Down Man in The Salberg Studio at The Playhouse. Up Down Man is a sequel to Up Down Boy, the biographical story of a boy with Down’s syndrome named Matty Butler. Matty is now 29 and the piece offers an insight into his life, creating an awareness of the highs and lows this young man has, is and will continue to experience.
Something that greatly appeals to me when going to the theatre is entering a space and visually having something to process. Even if it’s just something tiny. The audience enters The Salberg, which is an intimate theatre, and is presented with a small table on which lies a xylophone and a variety of other instruments, along with a few cuddly toys, sat with their legs dangling off the edge of the table, facing out to the audience. The auditorium is filled with familiar music such as a Michael Jackson classic and Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and you can’t help but bop along or begin to hum. So far, so good. And then the play begins, and it just gets better from there.
The piece uses a number of tools to drive the plotline such as storytelling, movement, live music and scenes of character interaction. The main narrator is a fox, who represents Matty’s favourite toy, imaginary friend, and at points Matty himself. He introduces the characters of Matty’s dad, sister and mum, who recently passed away but still plays a vital role within the play itself, ever present. And then there is Matty, a 29-year-old Down’s syndrome man, played by Nathan Bessell, who previously took the same role in Up Down Boy. With occasional dialogue, Nathan concentrates on movement within the play, executing beautifully expressive, repeated movement sequences, which he returns to at various points throughout.
The play covers a number of situations, for example the dad having to cope with losing his wife and now being alone to look after Matty: pizza and microwave meals most nights, a growing pile of washing, a home now lacking a mother’s touch. The daughter, Matty’s older sister, bereft of a mother and best friend, with her own home and partner but feeling a growing responsibility to help and an awareness that Matty will one day need another main carer. Then there is the mother, who although not really there, is ever present throughout the play, no longer in control and angry that she is not there to help and support. And of course Matty, a grown man in physical appearance but childlike in demeanour. He knows his mother won’t be returning, feels hurt like everyone else, but can focus on the positive outlook of the whole situation, which an adult, over analytical mind can so often push away.
This emotional and completely mesmerising piece of theatre offered a real insight into Down’s syndrome. It was likened to going to France and trying to speak French. When you so desperately want to be understood and to express yourself, but can’t. But as well as creating an awareness of the difficulties of the syndrome, the play also celebrated it, the idea of individuality and embracing difference in each and every one. Who’s to say what is the correct way, what is ‘normal’?
Of course a well written script and aesthetically pleasing staging can’t completely hold its own without the help of the actors. Nathan Bessell playing Matty, Emily Bowker who played Matty’s sister, Vic Llewellyn his dad, Heather Williams his mum, Kieran Buckeridge his imaginary friend, the fox, and Bryn Thomas who played Matty’s fantasy boyfriend and who also choreographed the piece, were all fantastic. As a collective the actors were able to bounce off one another, the overlapping dialogue and witty lines were executed effortlessly and you felt a real connection between the character’s relationships. This, along with the intimate setting of the Salberg studio, drew you in and engaged the audience from the very start. It was easy to warm to the characters, feel their emotions, their connections and this wouldn’t have been possible without a strong cast.
I would highly recommend anyone to go and see this powerful, thoughtful and well-executed play (and remember to take a packet of tissues). I enjoyed it so much the first time, I actually had to go back a few days later, and it was just as mesmerising, emotional and heart-warming as the first viewing… and I would watch it again!