Reece Pantry’s Sonny and launderette lady Christine, played by Clare-Louise English.

 Picture: Patrick Baldwin

One Under

Birmingham Rep Door


We may be far from perfect, but it’s remarkable to be living in a time in which mental health is a well talked about topic. With this privilege in mind, it is a brave feat that Graeae Theatre and Theatre Royal Plymouth have taken on in staging One Under – a play with suicide at its core. Not only that, but written in 2005, this story that would have been much edgier then, runs the risk of being clichéd today.

The audience walk into a minimalistic set, with enough furniture and décor to suggest that we could be just about anywhere. Two signs overhead tell us that in intervals of minutes there will be a train to Brixton arriving, and regularly the lights flicker and the sound increases as though they do in fact arrive and depart.

It’s clear right from the off that this is an ensemble piece with character and relationships at its very heart. The simple circular space becomes a whole host of locations as the actors play out fragmented episodes, with those not performing sitting on chairs around the edge of the set.

The story begins with Sonny’s suicide and promptly follows Cyrus, the train driver responsible for the tragic catalyst. Stanley J. Browne plays an obsessive Cyrus, convinced that Sonny chose his train, and desperate to piece together the story that led to this young man’s demise. Browne gains the audience’s sympathy for Cyrus’ circumstances, but also their pity as his hunger for answers manifests into starvation.

The narrative is split both spatially and temporally between Cyrus’ quest, and a storyline in which Sonny dotes on a lonely lady from a laundrette, offering her the world on a plate. Reece Pantry plays Sonny with a spring in his step, and this happy-go-lucky charming chappie leaves the audience deciding whether this is a flashback, or whether Sonny’s the Guardian Angel he claims to be. Despite his radiant glow, Pantry delivers occasional glimpses into a disturbed soul, reminding everybody that sometimes the happiest of people are battling the darkest of demons.

Laundrette lady, Christine, played with wonder and whimsy by Clare-Louise English is a great counterpart for Sonny in this whistle-stop tour of romance. Her emotional barriers fall down with real conviction, and English adds a dash of melancholy with her moments of self-doubt and insecurity.

Meanwhile, Nella and Zoe played by Shenagh Govan and Evlyne Oyedokun respectively, try to stay strong for each other as Sonny’s only survivors. The dynamic between Sonny’s adopted mother and sister constantly shifts as neither of them really come to terms with events. This is amplified tenfold by the fact that Cyrus is always nearby, volunteering as Nella’s handyman. Govan’s Nella is one that wants to wrap the whole world up in her arms; and Oyedokun’s Zoe is feisty and blunt, but with moments that reveal that she longs to be that little sister one last time.

The wooden framework of the set resembles a train track being pulled up off the ground, and works as a visual reminder of events, as well as representing the metaphor of the characters having their lives pulled from the rails.

The overhead signs which once displayed train times caption the entire show, which adds to the play’s accessibility, without distracting from the action.

Sharma’s direction takes Pinnock’s words and the company delivers them in a pacey and captivating ninety minutes. The performance is slick and polished, and the actors navigate the moods and atmosphere with real purpose. The intrigue and confusion draws the audience in and they have to invest because like Cyrus, they want to know what drove poor Sonny to his end. It’s the asking of questions, and constant curiosity that eventually delivers this play’s true meaning. We would all be much more aware of those around us if we actually looked, listened, and asked each other to talk.

Provoking thoughts until 23 November.

Richard Scott


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