Following last year’s debut play Dilate, George Jaques (playwright and founder of Athenaeum Productions) returns with his new play BREATHE. This time it is at The Bunker Theatre for a short run, directed by Hannah Hauer-King and starring a cast of six young actors – including Jaques himself. BREATHE looks at teen suicide, considering both the people who die and those who are left behind; the company have worked with organisations such as Childline to learn more about what they cover in the play.
We see the stories of three pairs of people: two couples (Emily & Jack, Patrick & Sam) and orphaned brothers (Flynn & Leo). The plot strands intertwine, as they are linked by the fact that three of them will commit suicide and leave the others behind. Emily’s family have moved away from London, but Jack maintains their relationship with regular visits – perhaps too regular, as Emily starts to feel as if he’s trying to control her. He’s also developed what she feels is an unhealthy obsession with body image, frequenting the gym and trying different diets. Patrick is Sam’s teacher, but they have tentatively started a relationship, meeting in the park and at his flat. In a moment of passion they consider running away together, but will Patrick realise the risk this involves in time? Flynn & Leo’s parents both died, leading Flynn to drop out of school in order to take care of himself and Leo; they were at risk of being separated if he hadn’t done so. Leo has retreated into himself, preferring to stay in his room and feed a growing porn addiction rather than confront reality – he doesn’t feel he can be true to himself and his emotions out there, even with his own brother.
The concept behind the play’s structure has been well thought out, with the cast of six beginning together before splitting into their respective stories, switching between pairs during the course of the show – before bringing together the trios with something in common by the end. It springs from scene to scene fairly smoothly, as bits of dialogue overlap; an example of how the same words have different connotations depending on the context. There are some moments when an actor from another story joins a different thread for a scene, and it slightly confuses matters – particularly when Gus Flind-Henry (Flynn) joins Douglas Clark-Wood’s Patrick in the pub, as there is no change in voice or appearance you start to wonder if Patrick is living with Flynn & Leo or if this is an entirely new character. Especially as Martha Hay attempts to look & sound unlike Sam when she joins Elizabeth Brierley’s Emily for a scene.
There is a lack of development in some aspects of these characters’ personal stories which contributes to a bit of head-scratching and curiosity. Why is Sam suicidal? There must be more to it than her final conversation with Patrick. What happened to Leo & Flynn’s parents? It does also meander along a bit too much towards the end – having Emily, Patrick & Flynn stood up there together feels like a more natural (and powerful) finish, rather than carrying on a bit after that. Jaques’ writing has definite potential, but I feel like it needs to dig just a little bit deeper to really hit the mark.
Cindy Lin’s set design transforms The Bunker Theatre yet again, presenting a two-tiered performance space by making use of one of the raised seating areas. The result is a kind of ‘corner’ stage (like the setup at the Old Red Lion), though I’d recommend getting there early enough to sit on the left-hand side as you come in, as the view is probably not quite as good as the usual block of seats.
Despite not quite feeling like the finished article yet, this is an important piece of writing as it attempts to explain suicide (particularly in teenagers) from both perspectives – and in doing so raises awareness about the potential reasons why someone might take their own life.
My verdict? An interesting piece of new writing that is full of potential – it just needs to dig a little deeper in places.
BREATHE runs at The Bunker Theatre until 4 August 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.