This time last year, Lancaster University Theatre Group staged an original play, Station, at the Nuffield Theatre. I came away from it with the eager hope that a precedent had been set for more original, student written plays being staged by the society.
Lo and behold, the society has recently staged Descent is Easy, an original play by Emma Geraghty, at the Dukes Theatre. Set in a halfway house, Descent follows the psychological peaks and troughs of Alex Woolfe (Holly Francis), a patient in her early twenties who is recovering from unspecified mental health problems. While the events leading to her admission to the institution are curtained off for the most part, it is implied that she attempted to murder her younger brother.
The plot is a sketchy affair, and consists largely of mundane exchanges between Alex, her brother (Duncan Lindsay), Dr. Blake (Michael Dodds) and fellow patient Tom (Robbie Love). After a plodding, slow first act of establishing relationships, the second delivers their payoffs – Alex hallucinates having sex with Tom and falls out with him, is manipulated into having actual sex with her Doctor, and finds out her family are glad to be rid of her.
And yet, despite its bravery in thrusting its events from a topic full of taboo, Descent is Easy is completely lacking in any kind of emotional power. When a scene in which a Doctor rapes a mentally unstable patient and threatens her with incarceration if she tells anyone doesn’t raise so much as a mild introspective tremor (in me, at least), one has to wonder just what went wrong with the realisation of ‘Descent’.
Presumably, Descent is Easy was attempting to deal with mental illness, and yet it just couldn’t choose an angle and stick to it. At first, the central character’s cutesy ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ relationship with Tom, and her rebellion against the Agatha Trunchbull style matronage of her strict nurse (Louise Turner) parrots the traits of a youth drama exploring a subject’s aggressive handling of social care authorities; like a Tracy Beaker Show for young adults. Then the play thickly slops on the silent pauses (sprinkled with thunderous shoes hammering all over the stage) as Alex has a series of rigid conversations with her family and doctors, and it begins to bear a Pinteresque nothingness. Finally, we’re introduced to some semblance of a plot, which is nothing more than a string of awful things happening to the main character, with no hint at a resolution. Is it a straight, depressing story, or a disjointed exploration of the ‘aboutness’ of mental illness? Who knows?
It’s all rather procedural and mundane. The procedure is at least well observed – there’s medicating, psychoanalytical sessions, phlebotomy, consultation and the like. The conversations and events are realistic, but only in the same way that a play following a day in the life of an accountant would be. The mundaneness is overstated, and for the most part, watching it was akin to awkwardly standing around waiting for someone to get ready.
The rather one-dimensional, homogeneous scripting, which struggled to express relationships with much originality, wasn’t much help. Alex and Tom’s ‘playful’ friendship was demonstrated by ‘banterous’ insults and the pair dismissively telling each other to ‘piss off’ every 30 seconds. Alex and her nurse shout at each other. A lot. Doctor Blake come across as a twitching, awkwardly ‘too-nice’ little creep from his first appearance. He is seen to be rummaging around his patient’s bedroom without her consent, putting immense amounts of pressure on a female colleague to join him for a post work drink and having horrendously inappropriate conversations with everyone around him; yet the audience is supposed to be shocked when he turns out to be a serial patient rapist.
This isn’t to denigrate the impressive performances from the cast – Holly Francis showed desperation and sympathy from behind a veneer of aggression; Robbie Love brought warmth and nuance to a blank sheet of a character, and Michael Dodds elicited a real feeling of unease and mistrust, in a fine début performance.
Nor would it be right to suggest that Descent is Easy is an irredeemable play. For sure, it needs at least some semblance of focus, and not so much tweaks as complete rotations, but undeniably there is room for (and endless potential in) a play that explores mental health issues. This production came up short, but at least tried to say something – it just wasn’t clear what the audience was supposed to take from it.