Drama groups across the land are preparing performances for the National Theatre's “connections” project. Tomorrow's Talent [like their counterparts in Southend and Colchester] have chosen Hospital Food, Eugene O'Hare's hard-hitting piece set in a teenage cancer unit.
Before the regional performance in Stratford East, it's previewing at TT's Danbury HQ.
Ten youngsters, in pajamas and lounge pants, hair loss concealed with bandanas and woolly hats. Sofas, Angry Birds, drip-stands, television.
In this production, directed by Gavin Wilkinson with Amy Trigg, there's a strong sense of shared experience, and a tremendous ensemble performance. Having all the actors present but immobile during the central duologue is especially effective.
But, inevitably, in the fifty minute piece, some characters are more developed than others. The dramatic core is the imminent departure of Gus, three Christmases, four birthdays in hospital. He longs not just to live, but to be alive. In desperation, his mother has arranged for “alternative healing” in the States. He must abscond. No-one must know. He tells his friends in their hang-out day-room. But the code decrees that anything shared in the Retreat stays in the Retreat …
Mark Ellis brings an intelligent self-awareness to the role, his doubts and fears etched on his face. He dreams of screaming out the tumours, and of soaring to freedom above the floor of clouds. Two friends are particularly affected by the news. Josh – his “brother” - a movingly honest performance by Danny McNamara – chides him, in a powerful duologue, for not confiding in him first. And, tragically, can't say the things he's going to wish he'd said... Layna [Hazel Ellender], who's painfully fond of Gus, is tempted to betray him.
Memorable contributions, too, from Alexander Bloom's Sol, a swot always stuck in a Revision Guide, who lends Gus the key which will enable his escape. From Scott Olley as not-the-sharpest Reece, who almost gives the game away. And from Erin Jacobs' Sadie, the baby of the family, who's lost a ring, and who movingly remembers the secret passing of her dog Reuben, and sees death as the deepest of deep sleeps.
The piece is full of telling detail: the Remembering Nights with movies chosen by the kids who've died, the other desperate parents, turning to the internet or exorcism.
The music is well chosen. “All Those Things” from the Killers: “when there's nowhere else to run, is there room for one more sun ? - I got soul, but I'm not a soldier”. And at the end, as Gus rips the cannula from his hand, vomits [“my tears have this solemn rest”] and slips away, leaving his woolly hat for Josh to find, we hear Benjamin Clementine's Cornerstone: Friends I have met, Lovers have slept and wept - I have been lonely, alone in a box of my own …
His friends file off in tearful despair, and it's a harrowing experience for the audience too, as these talented youngsters explore issues of family, friendship and death in their own wonderfully frank way.
Hospital Food rehearsal images / NT Connections from Tomorrow's Talent on Vimeo.