Theatre company Playing ON celebrates its tenth anniversary this year; it was set up to provide a voice for the voiceless, producing pieces of new writing to tell the stories of the disenfranchised – and also running workshops that seek to engage its participants in the route to employment, or even start down the path of theatremaking themselves. Playing ON’s latest play, Can I Help You?, was written by their co-founder Philip Osment, who sadly died last summer. It is currently running at Clapham’s Omnibus Theatre, directed by Jim Pope.
Police officer Francis is at his lowest ebb. Covered in a teenager’s blood after answering a call about a stabbing, he is unable to cope any longer and makes what he believes will be his final journey from east London to Beachy Head. All set to jump, he’s suddenly disturbed by a woman struggling with her bags and a cat box. Fifi manages to persuade him to sit with her for a while and talk; after a frosty start, they start to open up to one another, sharing memories and past traumas – and it becomes clear to Francis that his clifftop companion is suffering a great deal. Fifi’s missing her son, Michael, and Francis is haunted by his last memory of his mother, but can they find a way to help each other?
The play is full of surprises, as the here and now switches seamlessly into flashbacks (and even a flashback within a flashback); bright yellow is favoured over the murky blue lighting of the present, and performers Gabriel Vick and Susan Aderin effortlessly morph into younger versions of Francis and Fifi – or different characters entirely. The ground subtly shifts as we peer into their minds more, piecing the puzzle together and slowly realising what it is that’s at the root of their troubles.
Susan Mayes’ set is evocative of Beachy Head without it being too in-your-face; the dark colour scheme blends with the mood and the night time setting, plus the different levels available are really useful in terms of the storytelling. Max Pappenheim’s sound design takes us to the rainy and blustery coast, enveloping the theatre in the noise of the outdoors.
The story is told sensitively by its cast of two, as it quickly becomes clear that Vick and Aderin make a great double act – whether in bafflement at each other, moments of despair, or times of joy. The combination of suffering and hope that both Francis and Fifi have inside them is beautifully portrayed, and you can’t help but feel for them and will them to make it through the bleakness.
My verdict? A sensitively and engagingly performed play that tells an all-too-familiar tale of the battle for hope when all seems lost.
Can I Help You? runs at Omnibus Theatre until 21 March 2020. Tickets are available online or from the box office.