The Way Theatre, Atherton; Saturday 13th July, 2019
When you share a huge problem with someone, you can cut it in half. But if you cut a huge problem in half, you still have a huge problem.
Co-created by Marissa Moore and Joe Kennedy, Stages follows the story of a family struggling under the weight of a viscous grief which seems to be slowly grinding them to a complete halt.
In a fantastic twist which is cleverly held back till the very end of the performance, the grief event that stalks them is never really explained or sufficiently elaborated upon – it simply lurks in the story line, the perfect villain of intangible infamy, an enemy which is unseen, and therefore one which seems undefeatable.
In a strange way, it almost doesn’t make any difference what the grief event details are, the point is that grief is just there, and it won’t go away.
With the premise of one daughter away at University and her younger sibling showing signs of struggling at college, both Mum and Dad struggle to get anything done, they’re failing in their parental duties, as well as clearly failing each other as a couple.
It’s Mum who seems to be suffering the most though. Tracy Gabbitas delivers a terrifying portrayal of the mother, teetering dangerously close to a full breakdown, and unwilling to take help when offered it. Sean McGlynn’s father figure attempts to reassert control but he knows his wife’s situation is precariously delicate.
So much about the strangulating horror of grief manifests itself during the performance of Stages – thanks to a combination of excellent writing and acting performance: the won’t -you-just-snap-out-of-it frustration, the why-don’t-you-want-to-talk-about-it anger of it all. These troublesome thoughts appear and disappear, just as they do in real life.
As a visual spectacle, staging and presentation is cleverly done thanks to the impressive open-space luxury of the Way Theatre’s old mill home.
A family kitchen occupies one side of the performance area, focal point for the travails of Mum, Dad and youngest daughter Rue (Daisy Moston).
A change in lighting focus is used to switch to the other side, a different world: the seedy student bedroom of older daughter Ellie (C. C. Hughes) and her no-good boyfriend Seth (Charley Johnson).
In the middle, a huge draped cloth acts as a screen, playing out the occasional video – small but vital clues which suggest a possible path towards the successful rationalisation and understanding of this hidden adversary called grief.
What seems to make Stages stand out both in terms of writing and production is the role played by Tom Leonard, who acts as an on-stage narrator addressing the audience directly in brief bursts, always posing deep, open questions on the nature of grief and the possible solutions to it.
Leonard also lends a hand in a series of cameo roles such as takeaway delivery driver and random student drinking bloke: these seemingly minor roles take on a wonderfully apt poeticism when the closing scene is delivered – easily among one of the most cleverly crafted and emotionally draining twists that I’ve ever seen delivered in theatre.
Stages takes the knotted and unmanageable handful of unpleasantness that we call grief and turns it over several times to expose different faces, different angles, different dimensions.
Arguably, the monster is not defeated, but it feels like we know much more about it now, so it can’t scare us as much.
Carefully constructed as a story of sadness, the production manages not to dip too far despite the fact that the subject matter is inevitably generating the most melancholy of moods. The build-up is slow and winding, and the evasive permeability of grief is always tempered by an ever-growing investiture in the developing characters on stage.
The outstanding acting performances by the entire cast coupled with astonishing personal connections and experiences among the wider production team have resulted in a fringe performance by Talespin theatre that ticks so many boxes that it’s not worth listing them anymore. As the name of the show seems to imply, this is a production that fully deserves to be plucked from the fringes and hoisted centre stage for all to see.
Photography: Mark Russell; Craige Barker