Rose and Michael (Mikey) are navigating through the grief-stricken wasteland that is the aftermath of their mother’s death. We are provided with an intimate glimpse into a family’s trauma: Rose, pulled back to her hometown in light of these events, now harbours the responsibility of watching her beloved mother pass away from leukaemia, and simultaneously be responsible for Mikey, who has autism.
There is a highly effective use of sound and coloured light to isolate the scenes of Rose’s inner monologues, switching quickly back to the present-day with a ‘whoosh’. These sharp transitions reflect Rose’s consciousness, stuck in a melancholy state of living in the past, struggling with the pain of the present and trying to navigate an unknown future. A poignant set depicting a waiting room next to a hospital ward, the space is also used when switching to scenes at their family home and by the seaside. This is a haunting reminder that the ward has become a permanent fixture in their lives, the source of their loss forevermore.
Writer Ella Carmen Greenhill has channelled her own personal experiences into this script, and it can truly be felt in the authenticity of the characters’ anecdotes. Brutally honest and painfully realistic – all relationships can be tested by the death of a loved one, but Mikey’s autism throws another difficulty in communication into an already strained life event.
Greenhill has created two very plausible identities. Vanessa Schofield is excellent as Rose, handling this heavily loaded character with the emotional commitment it demands. Rose’s character represents the many thousands of young people who are left in a position of care and responsibility at the death of a parent or guardian, shedding light on the devastating holes that require filling. The humanity behind this character is particularly endearing, with her moments of breakdown just as important as her moments of strength. She may be a deeply loving and supportive sister, but her character serves the reminder that we are all human, and all have our limits.
Equally, we witnessed a stand-out performance from Jamie Samuel as Mikey as an 18-year-old with autism, able to function independently as a young man but ultimately still very much a child. Samuel portrays Mikey’s periodic meltdowns with a respectful, startling realism, performing each stage of his panic attacks with realistic timeliness, and building to a crescendo whereby we as the audience can only look on with desperate unease of wanting to somehow help. His condition is explored convincingly in these moments, showing the complexity of his disorder and the impact that it has on the relationship between he and his sister.
Grief, as arguably one of the most complex emotions to convey effectively, is rife within ‘Plastic Figurines’, but Greenhill’s writing balances the emotionally-heavy plot with moments of amusing sibling banter. This performance lays tragedy and grief at their most bare, presenting the many faces of despair through Rose’s character, who is battling to keep her head above water.
‘Plastic Figurines’ is a harsh reminder of human mortality; you’ll walk away feeling like you want to run to your loved ones and grip them tightly, having been reminded to appreciate the ones you hold dear. Which, incidentally, is a beautiful message for any play to convey.
Reviewed by Laura Evans
PLASTIC FIGURINES plays at the New Diorama Theatre until 22 October 2016