Presented by Playing ON, “a theatre company and social enterprise, set up in 2010 to produce quality theatre, transforming the lives of disenfranchised people”, Can I Help You? is the final play penned by late playwright and co-founder of the company, Philip Osment. With a minimal set of staging which slopes up to give the impression of a cliff’s edge, and the sound of waves crashing quietly in the background, the scene is set for tonight’s performance at the North Wall Arts Centre.
The play is a two-hander about an off-duty policeman who is about to throw himself off the infamous suicide spot, Beachy Head. He is forestalled by the appearance of a woman carrying a laundry bag and a cat box. On reading this set-up prior to attending the show, my interest was most certainly piqued. Not just because the scenario itself sounds quite random and fascinating – what on earth is a woman with a laundry bag and cat box doing on Beachy Head in the middle of the night? – but also the technicalities of how such a story could be portrayed on stage.
A combination of powerful writing, clever soundscapes and lighting, and astounding performances answered my question of technicality. The unflinchingly real dialogue is brought to life by characters Francis, the policeman, (Gabriel Vick) and Fifi (Susan Aderin), the Ghanaian woman who finds him at the cliff edge; two seemingly disparate souls who, throughout the course of the play, discover more similarities between them than they could have imagined. Mental health is an overarching theme of the play, not only in relation to Francis, as he is ready to leap from the cliff to his death, but the audience is also taken back through time to witness how he has come to this point. The two actors inhabit a number of characters, through flashback and memory (whether real or delusional) and the audience is given these fragments to piece together how both Francis and Fifi have come to this point in their lives.
It’s difficult to describe the play without going into the intricacies of the themes and plot, and I think it’s a performance that needs to be seen without too much preamble.I went in knowing only the bare bones of the set-up, as detailed above, and I think that aided my enjoyment. I was transfixed as the characters' relationship developed, fully immersed in their stories and the complex themes that are tackled within. While the topic of mental health may be at the fore, this is intricately-woven with gender, race, intergenerational trauma, and abandonment. While it sounds like it might be a heavy, worthy play, it’s not at all – there are light-hearted moments in amongst the darkness; a keen reflection of reality.
With a post-show discussion involving the actors, Director Jim Pope, Dramaturg Lin Coghlan and special guest Simukai Chigudu (Associate Professor of African Politics), I came away from the theatre not only feeling as though I’d witnessed a powerful, honest performance, but also having learnt a great deal about the themes discussed. Can I Help You? is a brilliant and important work of art.