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Review of Leave a Message at the Vault Festival

Leave A Message - courtesy of Ali Wright.
Leave A Message – courtesy of Ali Wright.

This isn’t the first play that has looked at how the sins of a father (not all fathers everywhere, but an individual one) is visited on that father’s son. It’s probably not even the first one at the Vault Festival to consider the impact of alcoholism. Ed (Ed Coleman) walks into a front room that in some respects is not that dissimilar to my own, with piles of correspondence in one place and cardboard archive boxes in another. In my case, it’s because a typical day involves being in the office during the day and in a theatre somewhere in the evening, so dealing with ‘life admin’ happens when it happens. Ed’s father, Nicholas, had his own reasons for untidiness.

But I don’t even have an answerphone on my landline: when Ed retrieves the messages, there are fourteen in total, a large number from his mother (divorced from Nicholas some years ago, but both the narrative and the messages confirm they remained on fairly amicable, and communicative, terms). She is concerned, if only because it is most unusual that Ed hasn’t picked up for so many days. Much to Ed’s friend Sarah’s (Gabrielle Fernie) consternation, Ed’s mother still hasn’t been told the tragic news. Even while Ed and Sarah are at the property, trying to sort through everything that’s been left behind, another message (hence the play’s title) comes up, again from Ed’s mum, revealing something that Ed tries to quickly deflect but Sarah finds infinitely more difficult to simply ignore.

Nicholas was quite the hoarder: in one’s suspension of disbelief, it is easy to imagine there being far more clutter than there actually is on stage. The older man also appeared to be a prolific letter writer, with letters from (amongst others) food manufacturers and the local Member of Parliament in response to his many questions still retained. Nicholas’ level of interest in Government matters and what goes on in business and commerce hasn’t quite rubbed off on Ed, who has instead (re)turned to the bottle as a way of coping with difficulties in his own life.

Continuing to go through the answerphone messages, there’s one from a rather chirpy lady, Linda (Hayley-Marie Axe), acknowledging receipt of a ‘naughty’ gift from Nicholas. So, Ed calls the number back – his son-father relationship with Nicholas wasn’t exactly close – in a bid to elicit some more information about what Linda knows about his dad. The person on the other end of the line insists it is not possible to simply speak to Linda over the phone, but an appointment can be made instead. It transpires that Linda isn’t a charitable organisation helping older people or the local NHS trust. It’s revealing too much, in more ways than one, to say what her role in Nicholas’ life was, but suffice to say she had built up a friendship good enough to involve the borrowing of books from Nicholas’ personal library.

The play isn’t afraid of stereotypes – Ed, the man who simply won’t open up, and Sarah, the dependable friend, relentlessly busy and full of enthusiasm, one of those people who I can imagine being very vibrant even first thing in the morning, to the annoyance of some others who find an in-your-face positive mental attitude a bit overkill pre-9am. There didn’t seem to be an awful lot of hope being offered in the final minutes of the play, just some refreshingly honest realism. I got the feeling that the production could have taken an interval and come back with another hour of details and further character development. As it stands, it starts to wrap up a tad too abruptly, but this does not stop the show from being a riveting and reflective piece of theatre.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Leave a Message is a brand new comedy, based on an actual afternoon.
Two friends, Ed and Sarah, travel to the small squalid bedsit where Ed’s father passed away a few days earlier. The place is wretched – covered in filth and reeking of alcohol – but the two begin their unenviable task of trawling through the wreckage in front of them. As they wade through the debris, pouring over the contents, the fragments of one lost life begin to coalesce, just as another starts to show signs of cracking.

At turns heart-breaking and hilarious, Leave A Message is a story of loss and love, weakness and courage; of addiction and loneliness, but also friendship and hope.

Underpinning the play’s poignancy is the remarkable fact that it is based on a true story. A chance encounter between actor Ed Coleman and writer James Mitchell at a party led to a candid conversation about the recent death of Ed’s father – the flat he had to visit, the friend volunteering to accompany him, the destructive nature of alcoholism, the extinguishing of a once fine mind, and the secrets uncovered amongst the soiled, hoarded documents. Ed remarked that he would like to write about all this somehow, but was struggling to distance himself enough to do so; James offered to help. And so, in the early hours of the morning, the two arranged to meet a few weeks later to discuss it. Astonishingly, they both turned up. Thus the play itself is not only a part expression of grief, and mechanism for healing, but also the crucible for a new friendship and partnership.

Ed – Ed Coleman
Sarah – Gabrielle Fernie
Linda – Hayley-Marie Axe

Directed by: Jessica McVay

Brick Hall @ Vault Festival,
The Vaults, Leake St,
London, SE1 7NN
Booking to 24th February 18:10pm


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