Walking home from seeing Tom’s at the Blue Elephant Theatre, I am surprised by how quick my pace is. There is an urgency within me as my shoes hit the ground. Perhaps it is the slight chill in the air, or my unfamiliarity with the local area at night that encourages me to move on – at least that’s what I tell myself. In fact, I’m reminding myself of the freedom I possess by moving from one destination to another. It is something that we take for granted. I can move one leg in front of another at a quick pace to get me from the theatre to my home. It is a gift that should be treasured. I say this because Tom’s is about Tom (Alex Clarke) who has a tragic skiing accident leaving him paralysed from the neck down.
Based on a true story, Sketty Productions brings a blend of puppetry and narrative-based theatre in a touching story of Tom and Ellen (Emily Wallis) as they build a life together after Tom’s accident. The narrative flickers between the fragmented moments before, after and during the accident that eventually leaves Tom dependent upon Ellen and carers. It is a bold topic for a young company to be facing, but Sketty Productions weaves the various physical and psychological challenges that Tom endures into a visually stimulating production.
Clarke as Tom shows a certain stillness, and not just because he is meant to be paralysed. It is the twitching, the staring, the odd flickers of hope and torment that pass across his expressive face that says all that body would normally tell. Equally, Wallis’s Ellen shows a level of compassion that tugs at you. It is clear that for any loved one, being strong is only a small part of the fight for normality. Whilst Clarke and Wallis drive the narrative, it is clear that the representation of Tom’s body as a chicken-wire frame becomes a gripping factor in Tom’s.
It is wonderfully simple yet deeply moving to witness the ensemble manipulating the individual limbs that make up Tom. Their isolation within spotlights across the stage echoes the inability for Tom to move, or to connect the movement of his head with that of these other desolate body parts that taunt him. There is a beautiful moment where this puppet Tom is floating within the air supported by the cast, and it is as if, for a brief moment, Tom is whole, casually floating in water.
Whilst the puppetry in Tom’s is a joy, neither performers nor script/narrative can escape the need to be tightened. There is much within Toby Clarke’s direction that draws its audience into the moment, but these are sadly cut short by the episodic nature of the script. Equally, there is a distinct lack of drive within Tom’s, meaning the performance pulls itself through the narrative instead of having an energy that propels the action. It’s a shame because it is clear that Sketty Productions has the beginnings of a poignant and honest piece, if only they would do away with some clumsy blocking and dialogue.
For a young company exploring the complex physical and mental affects of paralysis upon a young man, Sketty Productions’s conceptual approach to this story is wonderful. It is clear that in the next few years, Alex and Toby Clarke of Sketty Productions will be a company to watch out for, especially if puppetry is involved.
Tom’s is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 12th March. For tickets and more information see the website here.