The Man Who Fell To Pieces | Review
The MAC, Belfast • Tuesday 06 February’18
By Conor O’Neill
Welcome to the world, sorry, bag of John: a man obsessed with DIY stores and holding it together. As part of EDGEFEST, Tinderbox Theatre Company’s latest production focuses on mental health issues; not just those living with the problem but the effect it has on their nearest and dearest.
Stuck in a call-centre job a truthful man is never going to succeed in the cold-call world where telling lies is the key to meeting quotas and the empty success it entails. The Man Who Fell To Pieces examines that world where we happily air mostly everything of ourselves on social media yet lie and misinform the ones we care about by hiding our troubles in the fear of being thought of as weak.
Arriving early, the set itself could be a stand-alone art installation. Designer Ciaran Bagnall’s topsy-turvy idea of a home is a fractured and stark setting for a fractured and equally dark narrative. The black drapes hanging 30 feet or more from the back, left and right of the bleached white structure provide the necessary contrast to the creature comforts that bring a little bit of personality and homeliness to the proceedings. A kitchen table to the audience’s left, to the right a tall lamp echoes the upright frame of the abode, behind that a sofa with side-table and lamp. The diagonals of the eaves add to the Japanese influenced feel, a theme that is echoed in a later scene. Placards of words are neatly placed around every nook and cranny and as the show progresses soon make sense.
Lights down and thunderous bass ushers in the action. Katie Richardson’s music and sound effects are as essential to the play as the script, set and actors’ performances. Depending on what’s to be achieved, Richardson has the answer. Whether it be a panic attack of shattering, tinkling falling glass, the claustrophobic constant ringing of phone and rattle of fingers on keyboards of the call-centre or heavenly bliss of brighter moments, I dare you to find fault with her nuanced approach.
Writer and director Patrick J. O’Reilly’s talked recently to CultureHUB about his on-going mental health issues. The Man Who Fell To Pieces lays it out for all to see. Anyone who has had experience with panic-attacks or depression will surely relate to this engaging and at times harrowing theatrical offering. For a viewer lucky enough to have a more balanced mind, then it’s a window into the world of those who lives with such issues.
The 75 minute, the interval-free play opens up with fiancée Caroline (Roisin Gallgher) complaining about the milk being off. Her soon to be mother-in-law, Alice (Maria Connolly) simply scrapes it off and wipes it on her bathrobe. As the two up the tension discussing what to do, silence falls and John enters the spotlight.
Slipping effortlessly between narrator and character John (Shaun Blaney) is either telling us in a manner-of-fact way the ordeal he’s trying to survive or looking at himself in horror through a detached eyeball or at the mercy of seizure-like twitches as he delivers another staple to his wreck of a body. In other moments, in slow-mo and backed by ethereal music, time seems to stand still as arms and other body parts painted in bright Warholian hues on framed canvases move around him. This use of other cast members as prop carriers is O’Reilly’s forte as a director and clear examples of the techniques and innovations he acquired and developed while studying at the Jacques Lecoq Theatre School in Paris.
Yet, this is far from a one-man show. All characters and actors play their part. Alice calls into question who is really going insane. It’s not mentioned in the program, but whoever’s behind the make-up has really went to town on Maria Connolly. Usually glamorous and glowing, in this role, she is ashen white, bedraggled for the most part and the embodiment of the proverbial bedhead dragged through a hedge backwards. Alice’s flirtatious ways with handyman Henry bring both laughs and simmering innuendo of sexuality to the piece that’ll bring wry smiles to faces for the duration of the run. When Henry’s fixing everything from broken curtain rails to the oven’s heat-element, Alice’s world becomes one of tweeting birds, heavenly, floating, dreamlike music and beneath that dowdy dressing gown, a dress of patchwork radiant colours complete with plunging neckline.
A hulk of a man, Patrick Buchanan’s Henry, though he has every tool in the box, isn’t the sharpest, and like Connolly’s Alice, his character serves a double purpose. He’s not only there as the fixer of fixtures and fittings, but a vehicle for the comedy that brings such a usually awkward to talk about and hidden condition/illness to the fore without making light of it.
Caroline, is the only truly cemented realist of the plot, keeping her head for the most part as John loses his; yet even her sanity is questioned as she takes the bag that is John round Belfast by bus and foot. After an hour of trying to put him back together, surprisingly, Henry comes up with the answer. For those familiar with pottery, the 500-year-old Japanese technique of Kintsugi rounds of as a metaphor not just for mental illness but life in general. Kintsugi approaches faults and cracks in the only positive way. If there is a crack, fill it with gold and make it a thing of beauty. O’Reilly, of course, won’t lay it out for you plain as that. Instead he and co. demand you think about the issues as the plot unfolds.
No, he won’t join the Sunday 5-aside footie team and ‘No!’ he won’t ‘man up’, whatever that’s supposed to mean? The play ends with a proclamation. John stands in silence: “I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2012. The suicidal thoughts wouldn’t go away. I lost hope and I know that sounds like a bloody cliché but I needed to write this and share it with you. I wanted to celebrate my brokenness.”
Bold theatre. Standing ovations well deserved.
The Man Who Fell To Pieces runs throughout February in various theatres across NI. See dates and venues HERE.
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