Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Even before Charlie Sonata begins, one look at the stage suggests it’s going to be an unusual kind of play, and certainly with an unlikely, tragic hero. Poor, drunken, childlike Chick (brilliantly played by Sandy Grierson) has returned to Scotland to find his two university pals Gary (Kevin Lennon) and Jackson (Robert Jack) from two decades earlier, now firmly along the expected trajectory of adult life. Somehow Chick hasn’t been able to ‘become a man’, and instead has lost himself in the cracks of imperfect, harsh modern life and holds up an alcohol-drenched, wobbling mirror to British society. Director Matthew Lenton has taken Douglas Maxwell’s peon to his good-hearted but troubled real-life friend and created a dreamy, seemingly incoherent drama, spiraling through time. Narrator Robbie Gordon, with his grey suit and intense stare, projects a simultaneously friendly and sinister presence, which sets the tone for the entire play.
Against the backdrop of his friend’s comatose daughter Audrey (Lauren Grace) lying in a clinical hospital room, poor incoherent Chick, in childlike fashion, wonders at the absence of expected warmth in the doctor Mr.Ingram’s (Barnaby Power) stiff manner; as he sways and squints drunkenly, aptly pointing out that the doctor’s ‘like a machine’. A stellar cast of nine takes us on a journey back and forth through time; the beautifully evocative lighting and set pushing us, by turns, gently and alarmingly to misty memories and encounters of Chick and others, from drunken love on the streets with expletive-laden, erratic Mo (Nicola Jo Cully), his opinionated friend Jackson’s philosophical rants at university in the early 90’s to hazy recollections of what may have happened to put the 16 year old daughter of his friend Gary and Kate (Kirstin McLean) into a coma.
“I don’t mind dying,” says Chick, with this unwanted opportunity to finally become a hero. We root for Chick, with his soft smile and obviously warm heart, even when we know it’s pointless. His old friends care for him, but don’t seem to take his downward spiral seriously. The only one who actually asks about his well-being is Audrey, in the refreshingly direct way that teenagers have. “What happened to your girlfriend?”, she asks him, as he is proud to give her the only useful advice he has, and that’s how to begin a lifetime of drinking alcohol in the right way. Grierson’s powerful acting points us towards an appreciation of a whole world of love and loss and drama on the streets, that is generally shunned, hidden and ignored. Maxwell’s play forces us to feel for those sensitive people who fall through the cracks in our industrial, competitive society, turning to destructive crutches and never to be fully embraced again, as they become our source of shame; the neglected, the uncared for, the burden to a world running on adrenaline.
Meredith (played by Meg Fraser) is an intriguing and equally unforgettable character who unleashes her romantic and family problems on Chick as he visits the hospital. From a seemingly random meeting with Chick, Meredith is comic, angry and compelling to watch in her gothic ballet outfit with running mascara; she is part real, part dream world, the costume creating the bridge between the fairy tale and reality. These are the difficult, invisible people in touch with their messy feelings and we can’ take our eyes off her. Her existence is a clever dramatic device allowing for reflections not just on the art form of the play but also the dramas that play out incessantly in the mind and in life itself, as at times she operates like a part of Chick’s alcohol-sodden dreamworld.
Yet the play is very rooted in Scottish life, and the cultural references reflect that. At times, the dialogue feels a little too specific to time and place. Some of the references to pop and political culture of the past couple of decades feel a little narrow for the wide range of ages in the audience, and yet chuckles were elicited from some of the older members of the audience. However, the character of Chick is based on the tragic death of Maxwell’s university buddy, and the sympathy towards the leading man seeps out at every turn, even when he’s retching at the worst possible time. It manages to be highly visceral, relatable and other-worldly at the same time, which is not an easy feat to pull off. There are comic moments, tidbits of social commentary and highly touching moments, like the beautifully acted monologue from mother Meredith doting on the now comatose Audrey at her bedside, as she reviewed their relationship. “I was a fascist mum.” There are bittersweet moments where Chick laughs to Mo about his sad childhood with his sick father, and we get a glimpse of his inner suffering.
The set (designed by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita) and lighting (Kai Fischer) deserve a special mention. The artful combination creates a highly evocative atmosphere, from the inventive roving red phone boxes doubling as time machines to the careful arrangement of softly lit white ballet tutus. Even the garish artificiality of Jackson’s soft play area is familiar yet nightmarish in its comment on modern life; structured play not being real play at all. The brightly coloured balls trip up Jackson, and Chick struggles to complete his determined but precarious climb of the ropes in his quest to help his friends. Both thoughtful set and lighting decisively deliver us the dream-like experience of Chick’s inner world.
It’s hard to look at the rapidly degenerating Chick after a while, which is, of course how the other characters feel too. “Chick will always be Chick”, says one friend; an appreciation of his unique charm but also an abdication of responsibility towards a friend who can’t take care of himself. Chick is trying to do whatever he can to help Audrey, but is getting himself increasingly lost. But Chick has his chance to embody the twisted archetype of prince and saviour. As he tells his family’s story, he has the wherewithal to define himself, and proclaim himself by his proper name, Charlie Sonata. He has a certain disconcerting air of dignity even at the end, even as his ever more violent shaking leaves you with undercurrents that rock you well into the next day.
Reviewer: Lisa Michel Williams
Photography : Drew Farrell