Review: One Under, The Arcola

A beautifully simplistic set greets me as I walk into the performance space—a wooden frame, a paved circle on the floor and then, juxtaposed with this, the tube station board announcing the next train: “Brixton 2 mins”.

Immediately we are on the platform. A whir of a train, then silence. Someone has jumped. Mags, portrayed by Shenagh Govan, is telling tube driver Cyrus (Stanley J. Browne) that it’s okay to be shaken after the first suicide but by the third she “was grateful for the time off”. 

One of the first aspects of the performance that I am impressed by is the fact that the station platform Fstsigns become the signs used for the play’s captioning—a beautiful way of incorporating accessibility into the fabric of a show. I am even more excited by this when I realise there are two screens for captioning and they are used individually for alternating scenes to make the scene changes even more apparent. This is really innovative and unlike anything I have seen before.

The scene ends, off goes Mags, and on walks Sonny (Reece Pantry) but, noticeably, Cyrus is still on stage, just for a few moments. Cyrus and Sonny overlap in their presence in such a way that Sonny seems a shadow in Cyrus’s mind—a beautiful piece of direction by Amit Sharma and a hint of his mind’s unravelling as a result of trauma. 

We have two timelines before us: the aftermath of Sonny’s death being dealt with by Cyrus, Sonny’s adopted mother Nella (Govan), and ‘icy’ sister Zoe (Evlyne Oyedokun). Yet also, interweaving with this, we have Sonny’s last day with Christine (Clare-Louise English), a woman who works in a laundrette who “always has a smile on [her] face… but [her] eyes tell a different story”. Sonny’s interactions with Christine are forced and uncomfortable, a constant questioning of what’s real with him and what’s fiction, a stark and disorientating portrait of Sonny’s mental landscape. However, the emotional intensity of the scenes featuring Nella and Zoe are raw and show the turbulence of grief; these for me are the highlights of this piece.

The most commendable aspect of this play is that it does not shy away from dealing with paranoia, depression and suicide—how could it? But this is also, in its commitment to showing the complicated nature of mental illness, what creates confusion. Unfortunately this confusion is not limited to the characters’ perceptions, but extends to the audience’s perceptions as well.

Cyrus is mentally in a dark place, seeking answers and reasons where there may be none (or that he can never know). Sonny is paranoid and the line between his imagination and reality is blurred. The play ends and I feel dissatisfied. The ends are not tied—I have as much idea of why Sonny killed himself as I did at the beginning, and I still want, as Cyrus does, an answer.

One Under is playing at The Arcola until 21 December. For more information and tickets visit the Arcola Theatre website.