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The Backward Fall
The Hen and Chickens
13th August 2015


Publicity image for The Backward Fall

Photography provided by Penny Productions

It looks like we're late to the party. Well, late to the wake, more like. The Backward Fall is an epilogue to an earlier tale of the same name, here focusing on sisters Lilly (Ruth Sanders) and Clara (Rochelle Thomas) as they sort through their mother's possessions before their family home is put on the market. Lilly is quietly grieving, filing paperwork and boxing up childhood toys when her sister Clara bursts in with the absolute worst news ever, shortly followed by her much calmer and less dramatic husband, Alexander (Oliver Gully).

It's obvious that Lilly and Clara have very little in common, with Lilly much preferring the company of her brother-in-law, and frequently shooting him pitying glances. Etta's death has forced the sisters to get together, and both are struggling in different ways. Present day action is broken up with flashbacks to Etta's final moments, revealing the extent to which Alzheimer's had gripped her, how hard it was for Lilly to care for her, and how Clara just couldn't cope. The play's creators Kathleen Blades, Natalie Cooper and Aimee Potter mix grief, guilt and resentment into one simmering pot of trouble, which Alexander takes upon himself to keeps a close eye on so it doesn't boil over. Whilst he misses Etta as well, he's able to take a step back and mediate between his wife and sister-in-law, never taking sides as such, but firmly pushing the sisters to be kind to each other. In many ways, Alexander is merely a supporting character, but it's this compassion he shows which is so touching.

Plenty of action takes place off-stage, and with this play being linked to another one, it does in some ways remind me of the framework for Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, three interlinked pieces which do stand alone, however are even more meaningful when seen together. I wonder if we've missed some of the conversations between Lilly and Clara, if they were in that other version, or if they haven't actually been scripted at all yet. Due to the non-linear nature of this show, it would be interesting to see that original work again, and maybe another standalone piece which fills in all the blanks and completes the other two.

The basic premise of The Backward Fall is established immediately, and what's so heartening about the writing is it allows us to understand the viewpoints involved. We don't judge Clara for not being around more - well, we don't need to, she does that to herself - we get to glimpse her pain and understand her reasons for acting out. It helps that we connect with Alexander straight away, and on some level, know Clara can't be all bad, because he genuinely loves her, and must be able to see certain qualities we can't just yet. As expected, her character is fleshed out and we do get to know Clara much better over the course of the hour. Lilly of course is to be praised for looking after their mother, but equally Clara isn't to be demonised.

The Backward Fall is a thoughtful and poignant exploration of a very difficult family dynamic and the tragedy of losing a loved one to a thoroughly cruel disease. It does feel like Blades, Cooper and Potter are holding something back, but what we do get to see is heartfelt, moving and acted well.

The Backward Fall opened on 13th August and runs until 16th August 2015 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Victoria, Overground)

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