Culture writer Ali Gosling enjoys an evening watching powerful new student writing at the University.
While the importance and awareness of mental health is increasing in our day-to-day lives, sharing the struggles of living with it is still extremely difficult. Daniel Scott has tackled the challenging task of writing a play about it, and succeeded.
As we sit down in the small room of the Guild’s basement, What Remains opens with Jamie Tomkinson on the floor leaning against the wall, surrounded by cardboard boxes. The staging is minimal but effective; the walls are plastered in brown paper, scattered with post-it notes, lists, and a map; all mirroring the concept of memory that is delicately explored throughout the play. In walks Jessica Terry, and with Tomkinson they make up A and B, the sole two actors of Scott’s play. They flip a coin to determine who will play who, demonstrating the chance of mental health issues happening to anyone, which is reinforced by the naming of the characters as simply A and B.
The dialogue is structured in a reminiscent fashion; A and B tell us about their individual childhoods, how they met, adulthood, separation. Clever, poetic lines bouncing back and forth, matched with movements/motions to replicate their words, weave their shared story in a refreshing way. Some of the effectiveness of this flowing style of storytelling is lost when Tomkinson stumbles over his words, but this did not impede on the poignant realness created from the chemistry between himself and Terry.
There is a clear focus on the issue of mental health; the number 42,325, the amount of people living with Young Onset Dementia in the UK, is meaningfully repeated to us, and more importantly sticks in our brains. The exploration of the experience of living with dementia is carefully considered by Scott and co-director Rebecca Vernon. During B’s (Tomkinson) blackouts, their trauma is enhanced by the sound of white noise and erratic lighting. The use of sound and lighting throughout What Remains is extremely effective; despite the backdrop of boxes and post-it notes never changing, we were nevertheless transported from university life and nightclubs, to sunny city streets and hospitals. Tomkinson excels in his distressing portrayal of a dementia sufferer; in particular the scene where his mental state deteriorates and he stutters, forgetting words, is extremely powerful.
Scott also makes clever use of meta-theatre, something which can often go wrong and feel unnecessary. On occasions, A (Terry) asks B if they have to keep going, keep on telling us their story of living with the realities of dementia. Towards the end of What Remains, A speaks directly to the production team behind us, initially asking them ‘can we stop, I don’t want to do this anymore’, her voice rising until she is shouting and ripping the paper off the walls. This purposefully creates a sense of unease, displaying the impact of mental health on carers, which is the role A takes on once B’s dementia significantly worsens.
The meta-theatrical element is at its most powerful at the very end of the play, when Tomkinson re-enters the stage, causing Terry to ask, ‘again?’. This sense of a cycle is furthered when they flip a coin once more to determine their roles, both as actors and within the carer-sufferer relationship. The ending is effective in delivering a message on the brutal reality of mental health and the struggle in discussing it. Overall, as a student-written play, What Remains was hugely successful in its portrayal and exploration of the difficult topic of mental health, and brilliantly acted throughout.