On the anniversary that commemorates the end of one of the deadliest conflicts in history, Staying Alive is a play that examines the effect on those left behind. It’s not a play about World War One at all, but hits much closer to home as a mother tries to come to terms with the loss of her four-year-old son.
Mary (Rachel Nott) is supported by her friends Jenn (Eleanor Burke) and Jack (Alexander Pankhurst), who are on hand to provide distraction from the reality of her situation. Mary (Nott) goes along with it; she attends their dinner parties, puts on a brave face and tries to make awkward small talk with the latest girl that friend Will (Stephen Ashmore-Blakely) has brought along. She tells herself that she is moving on when she hires builder Nathan (Brendan Jones) to do work on her house. But every so often a stray memory or a flashback forces her to relive the stark truth that she must now survive without her only child.
Kat Roberts writes an introspective piece here that acts as a pleasant insight into the attempts of friends to console each other after such a tragedy. Jack (Pankhurst) and Jenn (Burke) are often lost for what to say, unsure as to whether their inane chatter about the trivialities of life are a help or just white noise. Indeed the frequent phase-outs that Mary experiences, where white noise drowns out her friends’ background chatter, is well-conceived from director Ellie Pitkin, as is the use of the baby monitor. The characters are able to overhear each other’s real conversations as well as tap into phantom thoughts that resurface at unwanted moments. But these intricate touches are counterbalanced by some lazy set design, some poor segues into flashback scenes and an overall plot that is left wanting – the story often loses direction and drive, which produces an anticlimax in what can be considered to be the tipping point in the plot. The inclusion of an interval is equally a poor choice, interrupting the flow at the one point where it starts to build momentum.
There are discrepancies in the acting as well. Nott tries to exhibit a stoicisim and ‘make do and mend’ kind of attitude, which leads to a fairly flat performance with not enough emotional breakdown in the more poignant moments. As Jack, Pankhurst plays the awkward friend well, but this is most likely unintentional – the awkwardness here is derived from the clunky delivery more so than the thought process of the character. Jones has the most consistent character, which whilst a bit stereotypical is at least down to earth, honest and in connection with the material.
People deal with loss in different ways and ultimately the play successfully delivers a message in which there is no right way to behave in such a painful and traumatic situation. However, for a topic that is so concentrated with emotions, this play feels a touch diluted and half-heartedly interpreted.
Staying Alive is playing at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington until 29 November. For more information and tickets, see the Pleasance Theatre website. Photo: Blackshaw Theatre.