One Under: A Timely Piece Exploring Mental Health

Tuesday 5th November 2019 at Leeds Playhouse.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Winsome Pinnock’s One Under joins the growing list of commendable theatre productions which seek to explore the prominent and vital subject of mental health – particularly in relation to young men. On my way to see this show, I was scrolling the Twitter feed on the train and quickly came across yet another tweet from a rail company apologising for disruption and reminding people to consider those who will suffer from the loss of the individual killed on the line. It’s with that tweet that One Under proves itself to be so very timely.

Initially we meet Cyrus, played by Stanley J Browne. Cyrus is a train driver who just experienced first hand that phrase which is all too common to all of us as ‘a fatality on the line’. Browne’s characterisation lands safely within the ‘salt of the earth’ type who takes his devastation and plants it in a garden of good will and good deeds. He’s the living form of repentance despite never having committed a crime. Cyrus helps Nella, a charismatic older woman who has been a loving mother to two children but seems to have lost both in one way of another. Shenagh Goven’s take on Nella is an engaging combination of the wise elder and the sympathetically broken hearted. Through Nella and Cyrus and their connection with one another we see the impact of premature death on those left behind.

That impact is also readily evident in Nella’s daughter Zoe, played by Evlyne Oyedokun. This is a young woman in pain who cannot find a way to regain control of a life and relationships that have been waylaid by an awful and unforeseen tragedy. Oyedokun’s performance is tightly wound with pent up frustration and it’s in her later exchanges with Goven that we find the emotional centre of the piece.

We also meet Sonny, a young man with an impenetrable purpose, a suspect sense of fragile optimism and an accompanying wry smile. Reece Pantry plays the role with a constant sense of unease and a surface charm masking certain vulnerability. He designs a meeting with a local laundromat worker, a very spontaneous Christine (Clare-Louise English) and whisks her away on a puzzling adventure filled with half-truths, fantasies and questionable realities. Their narrative arc holds some lovely moments of darkness and light, with the complexities of a new connection coming to the fore in some well crafted exchanges, but their scenes, mostly due to Sonny’s stories, lean too often towards the outlandish to sustain sincere investment.

There’s a sense of disappointing disconnect with Sonny and a connection with those around him in this play. While that is very likely intentional, the ambiguity around his story and the lack of answers we’re left with (like his loved ones – it’s not a parallel lost on me) means that the play feels incomplete as a piece which gives a face and a name to a huge social issue. Winsome’s manipulations of time and place provide some great insights but do so alongside some unnecessary additional narrative threads which detract from the central story. 

Staging is nicely simple, with director Amit Sharma and Designer Amelia Jane Hankin keeping our focus on Winsome’s writing and unfolding revelations. The cast keep to a small central space which functions as various domestic settings via minimal furniture and plenty of allusions to adjoining spaces. As a Graeae production, the play also features caption screens above the action in a welcome gesture of commitment to accessibility. Here those screens are cleverly ‘boxed’ to take on the impression of electronic rail station notice boards.

I applaud any production taking on such delicate subject matter and resisting the tendency to sensationalise or mercilessly prod at the tear ducts. One Under certainly fits that bill. It approaches the subject with tact and sensitivity but structurally, the play is periodically lacking in clarity and impact and therefore doesn’t quite grab a tight hold of us. That said, there’s no doubting the perfectly commendable work that has clearly gone into such a production and the fine performances given by the cast. With fatalities on train lines becoming an almost daily occurrence at this time of year, One Under is very timely indeed.

One Under is a Graeae Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth production. It was commissioned by Ramps on the Moon and is presented in association with Curve National Tour. The production plays Leeds Playhouse until November 9th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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