Review: One Under, Leeds Playhouse

This revival of Winsome Pinnock’s One Under (first presented at the Kiln Theatre in 2005), has been commissioned by Ramps on the Moon, and co-produced by Graeae and Theatre Royal Plymouth. This version contains brilliant integrated captioning and audience description, which brings this pertinent and urgent story about grief and mental health to new audiences.

The play alternates between two time frames. Sonny (Reece Pantry) takes launderette worker Christine on a whirlwind adventure, and it becomes evident that his joyful and sanguine behaviour is a precarious veneer for something unsettling beneath. In the present day, it transpires that Sonny committed suicide. Cyrus, the train driver whose train ran Sonny over, desperately searches for clues as to what drove him to take his own life, befriending his grief stricken mother Nella in the process.

This is a production with many merits including strong performances from a cast of five who are thoroughly engaging in this heart-breaking portrayal of grief and portrait of a family left behind. Reece Pantry demonstrates brilliant great range, at once being playful and jovial, but also displaying desperation and emotional fragility with great skill. The other cast members are strong; Nella (played by Shenagh Dovan) powerfully conveys the incomprehensible and interminable nature of a mother’s grief, and Stanley J Browne’s Cyrus is also excellent as a bewildered and increasingly obsessive man searching frantically for answers. Amit Sharma’s thoughtful direction ensures that this is truly an ensemble piece with each of the characters bringing an emotional weight to the mystery as it unravels. 

There is much to commend in this bold revival. The set design, a sparse stage designed only of a wooden framework with the actors circled around the edges of the stage, ramps up the tension. Amit Sharma’s direction creates a sense of intimacy as the audience become witness to Sonny’s story and begins to piece the mystery together, in spite of the complex time frame which moves back and forth, never settling on a particular moment for long enough. Ultimately, these oscillations back and forth become problematic and border on excessive for a play only 95 minutes long. The emotional gravitas is compromised as the plot becomes more convoluted – the puzzle of Sonny’s death seems to take precedent over the wider questions around mental health. 

This is a cleverly revived and urgent production, bold in intention and full of heart, which ultimately meanders for too long and never quite reaches its destination.

One Under played at the Leeds Playhouse on 9 November, and is touring the UK until 21 December. For more information and tickets, visit the Graeae website.