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Distance at Park Theatre, London | Review

Lindsay Fraser and Adam Burton. Photo credit Richard Davenport
Lindsay Fraser and Adam Burton. Photo credit Richard Davenport

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Every year 4,000 men take their own lives. This is four times the rate for women. What is going on? To explore this question Alex McSweeney’s new play Distance presents us with the case of Steven (brilliantly played by Adam Burton), a recently divorced and very troubled young man.

The idea of distance is cleverly woven into the fabric of the play. Firstly as the geographical fact of distance. Steven bumps into Alan (the excellent Abdul Salis) on the train from London to Manchester. To convey this the designer Bethany Wells has come up with the device of a train window which not only acts as a frame onto which are projected images of the passing landscape but also at key moments neurological scans of Steven’s brain accompanied by suitably atmospheric sound effects. So at one and the same time we have distance through time and space as the train travels the distance between London and Manchester but also Steven’s interior distance from both others and himself. It’s utterly brilliant. One of the most innovative and original sets I’ve seen on stage.

Then there is the idea of psychological distance. As I said this is evoked in the neurological brain scans projected onto the screen but also in other ways. For example, when Alan feels uncomfortable with Steven he moonwalks his chair backwards stealthily, creating distance as social disapproval. Steven asks Alan what’s the longest he’s ever spent in a room on his own? Alan says several hours, Steven’s record is eight days. Then Alan provides what I take to be the key insight of the play. We seek solitude, he tells Steven, because people hurt us but then solitude drives us back to the company of others. This is a never-ending cycle. Life’s trick is in navigating the distance between solitude and company. Some people find it harder than others. Steven is one of those men who when they find themselves in a hole keep digging until the only way out seems like suicide.

Steven’s break up from his partner Sonja (Lindsay Fraser) is powerfully realised. In the plays most painful scene we see Steven and Sonja using their child Jasper as a pawn in their power struggle. Late for his weekly two hours of contact time, Sonja goads Steven who reacts by swearing thus giving Sonja the perfect excuse to take Jasper away. Again the theme of distance is underlined, as Steven’s behaviour has distanced himself from his partner and son. Steven turns his anger inwards into self-loathing. He pulls from his pocket a bottle of brandy which he gulps down like water. Here I think the play gets to the heart of the matter. Men turn inwards. And they often turn to drink. As Steven matter of factly tells Alan “… do you know what will kill you quicker than cocaine, heroin or crack? Brandy!” Steven’s decline is indicated by the size of Brandy bottle he pulls out of his bag. And the increasing length of his swigs from them.

Distance is an important play about a very serious issue. In ninety minutes with no interval, it creates an utterly compelling and gripping slice of life. What most impressed me though was the way the cast brought male suicide to the stage without falling into the trap of agitprop or sloganizing. It’s a nuanced social and psychological exploration of the issue which is realised as a work of drama. It doesn’t have all the answers(who does?), but it does ask all the right questions. Mike Altman, the lyricist, was wrong. Suicide is far from painless.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

The distance between us can grow without taking a single step.
A complex recent past and a fragile present collide, as Steven tries to make sense of his world. We accelerate headlong into his chaotic and troubled inner life, as an everyday encounter unravels into something disturbing and unrestrained.

Fine Line (Out Of The Cage) return to Park Theatre with this darkly funny, physically dynamic, and technically bold portrayal of the mind, to bring you an urgent examination of the impact of mental illness.

14+ (Strong Language)
Performance Times: 5 September – 29 September 2018

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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