Salford Arts Theatre, Salford; Friday 3rd September, 2021
What is it? The words sound familiar, it has to be something medical, surely? In case of any kind of medical situation, google it first, then seek professional help …
A subdural hematoma is a serious condition where blood collects between the skull and the surface of the brain. It’s usually caused by a head injury. Symptoms of a subdural hematoma can include: a headache that keeps getting worse; feeling and being sick; confusion; personality changes, such as being unusually aggressive or having rapid mood swings; feeling drowsy; loss of consciousness.
But if you’re Eleanor May Blackburn then it could be worse. A lot worse.
She comes across as a bubbly, outgoing type: hopping around, arms waving, introducing herself as Eleanor, or Elle, Ellie, Smelly Ellie, Elles. Quite a zany character, definitely very theatrey.
But the glitzy razzmatazz of the opening scene soon evaporates as we hear the full circumstances surrounding The Incident: how she came to be in a coma, and how her parents were told that she wasn’t going to make it.
This is all very serious stuff, not exactly the cheeriest of subjects. Recovered Ellie’s comical interspersions are definitely amusing and insightful but it almost feels wrong to laugh, even when laughing along with her.
That conflict between tragedy and comedy makes for a fascinating stage experience. We want Recovered Ellie to launch into a full-blown stand-up comedy performance where she totally takes the piss out of a medical disaster, we really need it. But then every few minutes comes a sobering acknowledgement that it all needs to be taken quite seriously really.
The delivery method is incredible. Recovered Ellie is literally standing there, on stage, telling us all about it, this is an in-person autobiographical account – yet somehow the show manages to conjure up a sinister suggestion that this is all going to end in some kind of tragedy. Maybe it’ll be a tragedy involving someone else? Don’t know, but it’s strangely scary. This is what can happen in a theatre if the show is any good.
She says that she’s moving; improving; proving (them all wrong). Which is great, but throughout the performance her parents’ words seem to be suggesting that it wasn’t quite like that – thanks to recorded audio clips that paint a vivid picture of events that winter.
These clips provide useful narration, especially given that Recovered Ellie couldn’t possibly have remembered it all herself. But it’s more than just narration. Something profound and unspoken seems to be lurking in this show, it gets touched upon when we consider the concept of the person before the injury and the person after. Recovered Ellie says that she’s lucky: lucky to have survived, lucky to have recovered – yet the narration coming from her mother seems to suggest that there’s a wholly alternative perspective involving family, friends, colleagues, pets, etc.
Perhaps there’s a sequel in this?
Subdural Hematoma treads an unusual and unfamiliar path between comedy and tragedy. There is plenty of good comical content yet it still feels a bit wrong to be laughing at head injuries – probably because we all know that it could happen to anyone at any time and, unlike Recovered Ellie, some may not make it.
But that same reason makes it fair game for theatre. Candid and up-front, Subdural Hematoma delivers fascinating tales from a journey that, hopefully, none of us will ever have to take.