Review: Beetles From the West @ The Hope ****

There are some subjects which are difficult to stage. One of these is cancer. It’s so sensitive a topic, so uniquely individual to each audience member that to give one account may seem to occlude others. Falling Pennies approaches this issue from a different perspective, focusing not on the person directly by it but those around them. Directed by Phil Croft and written by James Hartnell, Beetles from the West does not deal in defining this difficult time, saying it’s the same for everyone. It deals with cancer in abstracts, articulating that which we so often cannot.

Kitty Hinchcliffe’s set design perfectly captures the sense of a hospital waiting room, clinical and confining. A small section of the theatre is marked out with tape, signifying the four walls; plastic seats, a table with some games and a clock the only set pieces. It all feels slightly claustrophobic, a sentiment felt by the characters as Boyd paces back and forth in this tiny space. Even the layout of the audience’s seats feels reminiscent of a waiting room; had they been the same make as those on stage, this would have been even more effective.

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The clock serves as a reminder that the show takes place in real time for the most part. In the 70 minutes of this show, we see the process of diagnosis of cancer and one of its aftermaths. It shows just how quickly everything can change. We wait with Boyd for news of his father’s condition, in this little room of hope. Fitting then it’s at the Hope Theatre. Cutaway scenes reveal insights into the characters and their memories: Henry who became a doctor to help those like himself when he way younger, Jenny who reflects on her own father’s mental health, and Boyd trying to cling on to happy memories with his father. Highly stylized language is symptomatic of these scenes, which include some beautiful metaphors such as ‘Everyone has a sea’. This contrasts against the every day dialogue in the main scenes, dominated with questions: What’s going to happen? Why is this happening to him? How do I go on? This is where Hartnell’s script works brilliantly: he doesn’t try to answer these questions literally, but abstractly. He shows that it’s easier to deal with things when they’re abstract: cancer is a beetle, depression a cloud. Hartnell is aware that this is in itself an issue, questioning the common comparison of cancer being a game, a fight you have to beat.

Hartnell’s script for the main part is brilliant, writing from various view points easily. However, it feels like there’s so much going on at points: cancer, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, the NHS, junior doctor contract disputes. In a show which lasts just over an hour, there’s a lot being explored. I would question the necessity of the doctor sub plot. While an interesting angle, the first monologue does not endear him to the audience, with rather strained metaphors of white knights and halos. In addition, I do not believe that one would try to compare their situation to a patient’s. Bedside manner is one thing, this is another.

It’s no easy feat, acting the utter destruction of one person’s life in one hour. Artistic Director of Falling Pennies Ryan Penny does an incredible job; his emotional truth in the role and dedication to this is so bold. From jubilation in his eyes, to sheer desolation, Penny takes the audience with him on this journey and is utterly captivating in the role. Shian Denovan plays girlfriend Jenny, bringing moments of surprising levity to a quite dark show. When we see her past rear its head with her, there’s a real anger and rawness which shines. Chris Machari rounds out the cast as Henry, a junior doctor. While I question the necessity of the character, Machari brings him to life in the cutaways.

Verdict: a personal and abstract insight into a less played subject. A much needed play for the London stage.

Beetles from the West is playing until 23rd July 2016 at the Hope Theatre. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the Hope Theatre website.

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