REVIEW: Man Down (Tristan Bates Theatre) ★★★★

The difficult issues of male mental health and sexual assault are tackled in a sensitive and emotionally hard-hitting new play by writer and director Jack Hart. Hart’s first play in the West End has been supported through crowdfunding but has brought together a good cast and makes the best use of the small space at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

Nick has thrown his girlfriend Liv a successful surprise birthday party but when she offers to reward him sexually, he says no. Liv won’t take no for answer and the experience of sexual assault traumatises Nick. His descent into mental health crisis is well documented in the first act before he feels able to seek help.

There are some extraordinarily powerful moments in this exploration of trauma, and the story is told with sensitivity, a dark humour and makes a clever point about the danger of generalising based on individual stories. There are some flaws in both the writing and the direction, the shift in the main relationship from seemingly loving to controlling and then abusive felt forced and a crucial scene in which Nick finally unburdens is partly spoilt by an unsympathetic mental health worker that did not seem genuine. In addition, the use of dance and movement to trace Nick’s mental decline does not really add any value.

However, Hart has drawn some excellent performances from his young cast. Max Ferguson is outstanding as Nick, full of nervous ticks and completely believable as he struggles to understand what is happening to him. Oliver Clayton provides good support as Nick’s best friend Marcus and Sarah Wanendeya shows her experience in switching between a range of different characters without missing a beat. Francene Turner does well as friend Amelia but is particularly funny as Nick’s boss. Zoe Watson seemed to find her role as Liv a little more challenging as she struggled to hold together the duality of a cheerful primary school teacher and abusive partner.

The cast are also integral to the design, working hard to move the set and create settings as varied as the London Underground and a Call Centre. They do this with quiet efficiency and no little skill, making sure the play does not ground to a halt as they work. Louis Caro’s sound and lighting design is also skilful and makes the best of the limited resources available.

Despite a few faults this is a brave and confident production that deals with challenging topics without ever losing its focus on the experience and emotional depth of individual characters. With a little more development this play could happily sit on much larger stage.

Reviewed by Kris Witherington

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