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White Bear Theatre Presents Blackheath by Alex Bower

Shows about male mental health have been around for a while now, although this one is less heavy-handed than some. Mikey (Andrew Hawley) tells his brother Eddie (Barney White) to stop being so preachy – but, goodness me, I’ve seen some substantially more sanctimonious characters than him, even if there is something very hypocritical about Eddie’s criticisms of Mikey’s job as a fund manager: he (Mikey) spends his working life helping the rich get richer, and therefore he’s a net contributor to the increase in wealth inequality, and so on. But Eddie also keeps asking for financial bailouts, which Mikey is happy to continue doing, especially as relatively nominal sums are involved and, in the end, blood is thicker than water.

Blackheath by Alex Bower
Blackheath by Alex Bower

And, of course, the show is more sophisticated to be only about mental health – at the centre of the story is Jo (Charlotte Brimble), Mikey’s love interest and Eddie’s friend, the former for a few months and the latter ever since they were at the same school. As Eddie has been living and working elsewhere, he’s not in the loop on what’s been going on with his family, friends and acquaintances in London – amusingly (to me, anyway) none of the trio, with all the laptops and smartphones abound on stage, bother with social media, so Eddie is none the wiser, or so it seems, until he’s back in the Big Smoke.

For reasons explained in the narrative, the brothers’ mother was taken from them before her time, but Eddie has reason to believe Mikey (or Mike, as Jo prefers to call him) handled it far better than he did. Perception, of course, does not equal reality, and it is interesting to note how sensitively Eddie’s evidently declining mental state is handled by the play, this production of it, and its characters: there’s kindness but there’s a realistic lack of sentimentality – and always, the harsh realities of life, such as the need to meet work deadlines or otherwise go to bed at a reasonable time in order to be up unreasonably early the next morning, are never far away.

It’s not a completely watertight dialogue, and some of the conversations raise more questions than answers. Eddie contradicts himself on a substantial point, initially insisting he is telling the truth, before retracting his assertion, claiming it to be a joke, only to later change position again, like a politician trying to provide whatever answer he thinks will get more people voting for him at the next election. What else has he said that may or may not be true? On another subject, the pressures on mental health provision, particularly psychiatric care, in the National Health Service, is subtly if briefly discussed, and it was a pleasant surprise to see and hear the topic broached with civility rather than the polarised shouting matches found elsewhere.

The audience for this production is sat on all four sides of the stage, with the actors moving around sufficiently to allow more or less everyone to get a decent view. I suspect in a larger venue, and with a larger production budget, the in-the-round setting would have a stage revolve, with dinner table discussions taking place entirely seated. This is very much a modern play for modern times, with complex characters for whom sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word after all. There are no definitive antagonists or protagonists here, just imperfect people trying their best to overcome life’s many challenges and unknown quantities.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

After a troubled year away, Eddie returns to South London to discover his younger brother is dating his oldest friend. Furious, Eddie’s life continues to spiral as sibling rivalry masks deeper instability within.

Premiering for five nights this autumn, ‘Blackheath’ is an intimate, darkly comic drama that explores the complexity of love in the midst of a crisis.

White Bear Theatre Presents
by Alex Bower
31st October – 4th November 2023

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