views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Lion and Unicorn Theatre
31st July 2018


Publicity image for Coercive

Photography provided by Three Way Productions

Ageing well is extremely difficult to pull off - so far I've already survived a quarter-life crisis, a mid-life crisis, two pairs of crutches and a TfL "please offer me a seat" badge. (I'm not actually completely past it. I just feel like I am thanks to physical injury after injury.) Arguably though, it's far harder to cope with the mental decline that comes with age. Being unable to make decisions about your own care due to mental incapacity is a very visceral fear for many, especially when they've already witnessed a loved one go through this upsetting experience at their side. Playwright and performer Paul Bridger is sadly someone with a personal account to draw on in writing a show about an ex-sailor who is slowly losing his grasp on reality. Bridger's latest play, Coercive, explores the fear of admitting that Alzheimer's is taking hold and the anguish of trying to support someone living with the condition. As always, the subject matter chosen by fringe stalwart Bridger isn't light, but it's certainly engrossing.

When we first meet Joseph (Bridger), he is already living with the aftermath of a stroke, with daughter Kathryn (Emma Louise) doing her best to help him despite his sheer reluctance to be helped. As Joseph becomes progressively more awkward in his dealings with her, Kathryn calls on her brother Nick (Daniel Pooley) to share the load before deciding professional help is needed in the form of part-time carer Sue (Melanie Barcelo). Whilst dementia can make someone unrecognisable to their loved ones, Joseph's decline is especially cruel for Kathryn who never had the chance to properly connect with her emotionally distant father and get to know him as a person. The sense of loss for her is palpable - it's not just a father she's seeing insidiously disappear, but the opportunity for Joseph to be a father to her.

Although director Al Carretta lets the story unfold quite slowly, it is the nature of the show's subject matter that informs the pace. We're aware that Joseph has more to share with us and we're reasonably content to patiently wait to find out if we'll ever get to hear those secrets. Joseph's struggles are poignant and upsetting and the time we spend with his character prompts serious reflection on the reality of living with a degenerative brain disease. It would though be equally interesting to see more of the story told from Kathryn's point of view, as her rejection by Joseph is in many ways an equally powerful plotline to explore. Whilst her frustration and intense sadness can be hinted at in Louise's excellent delivery, there is so much left untapped.

The bold lighting and layered sound design (also Carretta) help the audience understand the sheer confusion felt by Joseph as he loses control of his thoughts. Something as simple as a sound from a television programme prompts his mind to wander, causing him to relive a range of complex emotions, caught up in traumatic past events and unable to distinguish between his memories and the happenings of the present day. As with all of Bridger's work, he thoroughly researches what drives and influences his main protagonist, giving Joseph an incredibly detailed backstory and a fully developed character. Barcelo's performance doesn't feel as strong as those delivered by the rest of the cast; however, Bridger has invested his time primarily on Joseph and to a lesser extent, Joseph's children, so it's perhaps understandable the actress has less to work with.

Thoughtfully written and staged, Coercive is a challenging show to watch but a very worthy one. Bridger succeeds in bringing us yet another production that explores some form of loss and leaves us in a quietly contemplative mood on leaving the theatre.

Coercive opened on 30th July and runs until 1st August 2018 at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Kentish Town (Northern)

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