Reviews of productions of Gillian’s plays

A Kind of Alaska / Me and My Friend
“Something is happening,’ whispers Deborah in the opening line of Harold Pinter’s ‘A Kind of Alaska’. And about time too. Roused from 29 years of catatonia by a radical new injection, the opening line of one of Pinter’s most accessible and moving plays -inspired by Oliver Sacks’ ‘Awakenings’ -could almost be a stage call for the two directors at the helm of this contemporary double bill- a showcase for the two graduates of the Orange Tree’s trainee director scheme.

In Svetlana Dimcovic’s literal production of ‘A kind of Alaska’, the dual injustice of Deborah’s stolen years and the sacrifice of her vigilant family, equal victims of the rigours of time, are dutifully presented. But as much as Fiz Marcus’ Deborah captures the confusion of youthful innocence marooned in a woman’s body, she fails to allow Pinter’s laser -like dialogue to achieve its full impact. Plumping finally for the emotional impact of her situation, she misses the greater resonance her rhetorical questions should raise. Insufficiently probing or lingering over the spacious dialogue, she delivers the pain, but suppresses the deeper impact.

As its foil, Gillian Plowman’s bittersweet comedy ‘Me and My Friend’, directed by Paul Griffiths, provides the greater entertainment and contains the one truly moving moment of the evening. Oz and Bunny, two rehabilitating patients released from psychiatric care and now living together, are preparing for Bunny’s impending job interview. As Adam Kay’s Oz chides his flatmate, Bunny’s coiled despair is manifested in painful simplicity. A grown man, he is no longer able to overcome the simple things in life: to shave properly: to iron his shirt; to polish his shoes. Morgan Symes’ vaudevillian Bunny, unable to hide any longer behind the mask of humour, is reduced to psychological collapse and a tragic attempt to end it all.

It is a successful ending to the evening’s uneven attempt at capturing the pain and authenticity of compromised adulthood.”

Richard Steam

A Kind of Alaska / Me and My Friend
“These productions, a showcase for the two Orange Tree trainee directors, share a theme of re-birth and rehabilitation. One a miniature masterpiece; the other the first part of a three-act comedy about ‘care in the community’.

Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, premiered at the National in 1982, drew on Oliver Sacks’ case studies of sleeping sickness patients woken by use of the drug L-DOPA. Fiz Marcus plays Deborah, a bewildered woman suddenly returning to wakeful life from a 29-year coma but believing herself to be only 16. She is vaguely conscious of having been on a strange journey in a sort of Alaska of the spirit. But when faced with her sister Pauline she rounds on her accusingly with. “You’ve aged substantially”. John Cunningham plays the tactful neurologist forced to recognise that Deborah’s awakening has become more of a nightmare than her sleepful oblivion.

A brisk, vigorous production by Svetlana Dimcovic (the Pinter pauses perhaps shorter than usual) makes good use of in-the-round staging to give Deborah ample space for her first struggles to walk. But Marcus, a physical actress with a powerful stage presence, never quite convinces as an adolescent locked inside the body of a mature woman, while the youthful Louise Yates seems odd casting to play the now middle-aged sister.

South African director Paul Griffiths is on surer ground with the first act of Gillian Plowman’s hilariously disturbing Me and My Friend, set in a council flat that offers a halfway house for psychiatric patients being returned to the community.

Although also casting against type, he succeeds brilliantly in turning the recessive Oz, a postman who went to pieces when his mother was killed, into an ebullient lad with an obsession for blondes; while the workaholic Bunny, determined to get a job, here becomes a nervy no-hoper.

The behavioural detail is beautifully observed, and I think the author would admire the inventive performances by Adam Kay and Morgan Symes, comedy tinged with pathos, while regretting that we never get to meet her other creations – the girls in the flat above – nor the wild party that ensues.”

John Thaxter

A Kind of Alaska / Me and My Friend
“The Orange Tree’s admirable trainee director scheme is now in its 16th year, and has had a remarkable success rate to date. Luminaries benefiting from this residency include Rachel Kavanagh, lately of the RSC and the Open Air Theatre, and Tim Sheader, responsible for two winning summer productions at the Watermill in Newbury On the evidence of this double bill, the class of 2002, Svetlana Dimcovic and Paul Griffiths, have raw talent that needs to be channelled with greater precision.

For their showcase productions, both interestingly tackle works in which people who, for reasons of physical or mental illness, have missed out on years of normal existence. Dimcovic could have chosen better than Harold Pinter’s chilly A Kind of Alaska. Based on Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, it shows Deborah (Fiz Marcus) coming round from the mysterious “sleeping sickness” that put her into a coma-like state 29 years previously, at the age of 16. The piece’s static nature -Deborah starts in bed, then takes faltering steps, watched by her sister and sinister doctor -would present a potential banana skin for the most experienced director, and matters aren’t helped by an irritatingly fluttery performance from Marcus.

Things improve with Griffiths’s take on the first act of Gillian Plowman’s Me and My Friend, about two patients from a psychiatric ward placed in their own council flat as part of a care in the community scheme. Adam Kay and Morgan Symes give winning turns as laid-back Oz and uptight Bunny, who practise mock interviews dressed in jacket, tie and pyjamas. The men seem fine, but Plowman cleverly shows through the medium of their role-playing how neither can cope with the unexpected. Griffiths marshals proceedings well, even if the tempo does flag when Bunny is left on his own, and the point at which his two actors joyously pretend to be an entire rugby team is the highlight of this evening.”

Fiona Mountford

A Kind of Alaska / Me and My Friend
“Sleeping sickness and the controversial care in the community policy are the topics explored in two, short, contemporary plays forming the summer showcase at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. The first, A Kind of Alaska by Harold Pinter, is a disturbing play about a woman, Deborah, who has lost 29 years through a mysterious sleeping sickness.

It opens with the patient’s awakening after being injected with the miracle drug, L-DOPA, and goes on to demonstrate poignantly how bewildering losing so much time must be for the sufferer. Deborah wakes up thinking she is 16 and has just had a lie-in, but is soon convinced of the cruel reality when she discovers her younger sister is now middle-aged and that her mother has died. Fiz Marcus plays Deborah, and in my opinion her performance would have been better suited to a West End stage than to the very intimate Orange Tree Theatre. John Cunningham and Louise Yates, who play the doctor Horn by and Deborah’s sister Pauline, pitched their performances better, but could have been more convincing.

The second play, Me and my Friend by Gillian Plowman, brings us into the world of two men, Bunny and Oz, who have recently been released from psychiatric hospitals, and are learning to live together. Unfortunately, something as simple as a job interview throws everything off balance. It may sound depressing, but there is much humour in this play and the two actors, Adam Kay and Morgan Symes, both give brilliant performances. I was utterly convinced of the pain Bunny and Oz had suffered, their strong affection for each other and their devastation when it all goes wrong.

The plays are directed by the Orange Tree’s trainee directors for 2001/2002, Svetlana Dimcovic and Paul Griffiths, and the double bill runs until June 30th.”

Rebecca Fisher

A Kind of Alaska / Me and My Friend
“A one-act play about two “recovered” mental patients can go one of two ways. Either it will be an anguished trip into the heart of dementia, or it can engage you with humour. Fortunately young South African director Paul Griffiths’s Me and my Friend chooses the latter option.

Written by Gillian Plowman and performed at the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond, Me and my Friend explores the Fortunes of Oz (Adam Kay) and Bunny (Morgan Symes) two “rehabilitate” mental patients living in a council flat and attempting reintegration into society. As the plot unfurls, it emerges that both have “women” issues. Oz felt unfairly abandoned by his mother when she died and tries to compensate by assuming the role of homemaker. While before his mental collapse, Bunny’s work commitments caused him to neglect his wife. Consequently he feels unreliable and is driven to prove himself worthy of, amongst other things, employment.

Both characters confront familiar concerns: self worth, joblessness, fear of failing in meaningful relationships, an identity crisis and a lack of confidence. But while the issues are normal, Oz and Bunny’s dysfunctionality and paranoia lends itself to the ridicUlousness. Unless your nanle is Bunny, circumcision is not a common shortcut to greater self -confidence. And you suspect that no matter how many of his dead mother’s dresses Oz wraps up and delivers to strange women this may not cure all of life’s ills.

Nevertheless, Me and my Friend is never patronising nor flippant, and is best described as sensitive with a smile. If there is a criticism, it’s that Griffiths, in his first significant production as director, never quite draws out the depth of the characters’ despair, but then you suspect this is intended, and the play is better for it. Even when Bunny, in a fit of desparation, attempts suicide Griffith’s direction – avoids over-sentimentality, choosing instead to paint with a light brush what could be a dark picture. In the closing scene, as the sound of an ambulance drowns out the light, it’s clear that if there is hope for the two, it lies in their bond together, not the institutions of society that have failed them. The set is “domestic squalor”, a cluttered authenticity composed of a rickety table, and ironing board (with poised iron} an unsavoury wash basin, two iron beds, and enough second-hand clothes to keep Oxfam in business for months. A small theatre in the round, The Orange Tree is ideally suited for this production. Its intimacy brings you so close to the action on stage, “it could ruin your dress, or make your night”. Unlike many West End theatres it has a homely, lived-in feel to it, with the added dimension of being able mingle with the cast afterwards at the bar.”

Timothy Schultz

A Kind of Alaska / Me and My Friend
On-line Review
Crooked Wood
Reviews of Crooked Wood from its run at The Jermyn Street Theatre;

Crooked Wood is on again with Jill Freud starring as Miss Barwick in Aldburgh 10-15 August and Southwold 17-29 August and in Guildford 8-12 Sept …

See tour details on UK Theatre Web and Yvonne Arnold details on their website.

“Both Gillian Plowman’s two-handers of grief and catharsis are tightly structured and reflective, even elegiac in tone. The characters inhabit the present tense, one suffering paralysis and speech impediments, another contemplating suicide, but the past just keeps on coming back.

The obvious victim in each case, Madeleine in The Wooden Pear and Jon in Beata Beatrix, confronts someone whose pain is more oblique, less dramatic, than their own. The plays are trying to expand categories, differentiating various forms of pain while acknowledging its universality. Both endings are redemtive, the characters’ impacted grief dispersing itself in everyday life’s mundane details.

Plowman’s writing has a limpid quality which poeticises the prosaic. Her ability to develop and layer themes and imagery means that certian words and metaphors echo through her dialogue. This elegant production detects the internal logic of the works, with the actors using gesture to perform a physical text to acoompany the verbal one.

Frankey Martyn gives a virtuoso performance as Madelein, while Chris Humphreys, as the damaged young flasher, is both edgy and vulnerable. Transformed in Act II, Martyn becomes the tea cosy-like Beatrice while Humphreys is a compelling mix of purpose and guilt as Jon.

Simply staged and warmly lit, Stephen Picton directs with a poised attention to detail. Music comes sparingly and effectively in a production which evaluates its tests intelligently and lay bare their consolatory eloquence.”

The Stage

Gillian Plowman’s Destinies is an unmatched deal in the world of theatre at the moment. Put crudely, it offers the audience two plays for the price of one – The Wooden Pear and Beata Beatrix. Two dramatisations, four characters depicted by two actors, guided by an emotional script, chasing a common goal – optimism.

There lies the beauty in Plowman’s work. Both plays begin where many dramas end. A personal, earth-shattering catastrophe: the pieces of ruined lives.

In The Wooden Pear, Madeleine Peters (Frankey Martyn) has suffered a stroke, cruelly brought on by Danny’s (Chris Humphreys) brutal assault on her. Initially Madeleine seems the victim, justified in seeking her revenge. Later, it emerges that they are both victims and most surprisingly, that together they can heal each other.

With Beata Beatrix, demons are confronted in the sophisticated confines of an art gallery. There before one of Rossetti’s paintings, Beatrice exorcises her deeply rooted resentments before businessmans Jon Williams, who is comtemplating suicide.

All elements of both these plays must be seen, soaked up and cherished. The words, the laughter, the emotional highs and depressing lows; the opening music, the majesty of the set (particularly the paintings hanging in the background during Beata Beatrix) all breathe the aura of Destinies.

Most significantly, the plays’ success is hinged on the incredible performance of both Martyn and Humphreys. Martyn especially gave her all, in her achingly accurate portrayal of Madeleine. The right side of her face was permanently lopsided, she dribbled, struggled to pronounce words, and could barely walk. Yet, in the face of all this adversity, Plowman allowed positivity to shine through. A touching testimony to the human spirit.
Marissa Charles – Camden New Journal

Me and My Friend – Financial Times
Financial Times Tuesday April 17 1990
Claire Armistead

The winner of the 1988 Verity Bargate Award, in full swing at Soho Poly, refines on one of the genres for which the latter part of the past decade will be remembered at least in fringe history: the drama of disability. Where Lucy Gannon, a mental health worker turned dramatist, has trodden, hospice bursar Gillian Plowman now follows with a three-part comedy of care in the community. Or lack of it, as the case usually is.
The clever thing about this triptych is that the ‘issues’ are not actually debated at all; they simply hang in the air like a great unarticulated question mark defining the loneliness of the two pairs of longstay patients who have been discharged from their protective hospital wards to neighbouring flats, with the instructions to ‘plan ahead’ and be self-sufficient.
For the two men, who live downstairs, planning ahead consists of leafing through newspapers looking for jobs they will never get; for the women upstairs, it is invested in a pyramid of coke cans with which they hope to buy themselves the first of many holidays abroad. Self-sufficiency is a subtler concept which grows through the companionship of the two pairs: jocose and playfully competitive in the case of Oz and Bunny whose first scene – somewhat melodramatically culminating in a suicide attempt by Steve Swinscoe’s mercurial Bunny – is the weakest of the three; a bossy protectiveness between Julia and Robin, the shades of which are beautifully drawn by Nicola Redmond and Sonia Ritter.
An awareness of each for each is established through the loveable Oz’s parcel fixation: Tim Stern’s delivery during the first section of a tenderly wrapped scarlet dress that once belonged to Oz’s mother is picked up in the second, when its unexplained arrival throws the women back on their past lives and loves. Julia worked briefly as a prostitute, while Robin’s breakdown was marked, we learn with a frisson, by the suffocation of her only child. It is in the third and finely acted final scene that Plowman draws all these strands together into a devastating black comedy of inadequacy, as the two pairs meet for a party in which social niceties are turned on their head, first humorously (instead of the usual cup of tea, cups of sugar are offered by way of hospitality), then menacingly, as high spirits – denied the protection of ‘normal’ behavioural structures – get disastrously and predictably out of hand.
Deborah Paige’s direction, on a set by Lucy Weller of DHSS functionalism the layout of which is slightly altered to indicate the different flats, is finely attuned to the neurotic comedy of a cunningly structured, deceptively hard-hitting play.

Me and My Friend – Independent
Me and My Friend
THE INDEPENDENT Tuesday 17 April 1990
Paul Taylor on Gillian Plowman’s Me and My Friend at the Soho Poly

Strange, really, that sitcom writers have not got round yet to exploiting the mentally ill. The current policy of “Care in the Community” (sic,sic) offers a wealth of opportunity for the kind of tasteless stereotype-reinforcement on which the genre thrives. How about Those Nutters Next Door!, the whacky on-going saga of spats between local ratepayers and half-way house residents, or a sitcom in which a redundant merchant banker flatshares in south London with a released schizophrenic, working-title And the Lodger Makes Three?

Gillian Plowman’s award-winning play, Me and My Friend, is on an altogether higher plane and if it occasionally allows you to laugh at, as well as with and for, the nervously debilitated quartet on which it focuses, this is just a way of indicating that breakdown-sufferers deserve better than to be patronised or over-protected as members of a separate species. Po-faced solicitude towards then may be just the flipside of callous stigmatisation.

Me and My Friend homes in on a couple of odd couples – ex-psychiatric patients now living in council flats as part of their re-habilitation programme. For a study of how such people cope out in the community, a cast of only four characters might seem a little conservative. But this is precisely Plowman’s point. Slipping through the net of the support services, both pairs (who only meet in the final act) have retreated into an enclosed world of edgy, but complete mutual dependence. Lucy Weller’s set, in which all the walls and fittings seem to have been painted with the skin of Heinz tomato soup, reinforces a sense of its inward-looking, obsessive nature.

Downstairs, the men conduct fantasy job interviews for the jobs which, with the tell-tale gaps in their CVs, they will now have a job getting. Upstairs, the women are building a tower of coin-filled Coke cans as a way of saving up for a holiday in France and have evolved an elaborate, slightly self-deceived system for cutting down on their household spending.

During the course of the play, a wrist gets slashed in lonely despair and one of the flats is frenziedly turned upside-down when Robin (excellently played by Sonia Ritter) is reminded that she was her own son’s murderer. But these facts, while painfully registered, are absorbed in the atmosphere – expertly gauged in Deborah Paige’s fine production – of sublime, but untrivialising dottiness.

What Plowman shows is that, if the ‘community’ for these people essentially boils down to one other person, it can still provide care of a kind. It has to. Every year, for example, gum-chewing, street credible Julia, (Nicola Redmond) sends Robin a birthday card from the murdered boy. Ex-postman Oz (Tim Stern) rustles up nourishing dishes for his flatmate Bunny (Steve Swinscoe), a one-time production manager and anxious workaholic. Suffering pangs of acute loneliness and panic when Oz goes out each day to do a confidence-boosting pretend postal delivery, Bunny now knows what his own wife must have gone through as the victim of his work obsession.

Those partnerships re-enact, in such odd, distorted ways the previous, troubled relationships which caused the people to cave in in the first place. This offsets the suspicion of sentimentality, the feeling that it is rather convenient for the play’s optimism that no one ended up sharing with an unreconstructed shit. Mawkishness is further countered by the barmy one-track mindedness of the protagonists and their supreme lack of tact which, when the coupled collide at a sort of Mad Hatter’s Cocktail Party, eventually push Me and My Friend into airborne, brilliantly-paced farce. Mediating between the zany and the harrowing, this drama of mental unsteadiness shows a fine tragi-comic balance.

Me and My Friend – Time Out
Me and My Friend
Time Out – London’s Weekly Guide – April 18 – 25 1990

Critics’ Choice – Me and My Friend
Gently bewitching and sharply humorous
production of the Verity Bargate winning
play by Gillian Plowman about madness
and dislocation

Gillian Plowman’s play, set in council flats used for the rehabilitation of psychiatric patients, explores the extraordinary relationships between two couples, on different floors, thrown prematurely out of hospital care. Disorientated, dispossessed and wired on their own vulnerability, the characters shift into role play and association games with the arbitrariness of gears slipping in a car. Bunny has a job offer as a sales assistant in a bicycle shop, but his practice interview with flatmate Oz merely underlines how inadequately equipped he is to realise it: meanwhile Robin and Julia are saving up to go to France by putting loose change into Coke cans, but disturbing fingers from the past intrude with unsettling consequences. Despite the desperate quality of their lives, and the bewildering plans, Plowman side-steps the temptation for serious pulpit-bashing by ribbing her script with some exquisite humour, notably the unforgettable party that Oz decides to throw. Apart from problems with the pacing of the second act which should sort themselves out in due course, Deborah Paige’s empathic direction sharpens the eccentric humour and heightens the sense of dislocation. A worthy winner of last year’s Verity Bargate Award, bravely acted and gently bewitching.
James Christopher

Me and My Friend – Weekend Telegraph
Weekend Telegraph Saturday 14th April 1990
Wild Laughter amid the anguish
 Charles Spencer on a remarkable play by a virtually unknown playwright

I went to Gillian Plowman’s Me and My Friend at the Soho Poly Theatre expecting a glum and earnest evening. Although the play won an award for new writing in 1988, that is not necessarily a guarantee of quality, and the piece is only now receiving its premiere. Its subject is mental illness and two pages of the programme are devoted to facts and statistics about community care. Not exactly a barrel of laughs you might think.

Yet the play turns out to be the kind of heart-warming surprise which richly repays all the dreary hours spent watching second-rate work in uncomfortable fringe theatres.

Me and My Friend, only the second of Plowman’s plays to be professionally staged, is set in two council flats used for the rehabilitation of psychiatric patients. Downstairs are Oz, a former postman, and Bunny, who used to manage a print works until his workaholism drove him into breakdown. Upstairs are Robin, a middle-class housewife who suffocated her own son, and Julia, a younger woman who used to be on the game.

In the first two acts, we watch first Bunny and Oz, then Julia and Robin, attempting to adjust to life outside the confines of the large mental hospital from which all four have recently emerged. All are deeply insecure, with a fragile grip on reality, and they develop childlike games and rituals to prop themselves and each other up.

Gillian Plowman’s depiction of her characters is often deliriously funny, and there are times when you find yourself catching your breath and wondering about the morality of enjoying the play so much – is it right to laugh at the loonies like this?

But Miss Plowman draws her characters with compassion as well as comedy and their efforts to help each other are most moving. We laugh with these misfits rather than at them, and come to care about them deeply. All four are superbly played by actors who seem to be living their parts rather than simply performing them. But the most extraordinary feature of the play is its dramatic shifts in mood. The playwright repeatedly kills the laughter stone dead with sudden terrifying glimpses of her characters’ anguish. The scene in which Bunny slashes his wrist and Oz, bewildered and inadequate as he is, finally manages to do all the right things to save his friend’s life, leaves one trembling with tension, while the moment Robin suddenly confronts the horror of her crime is almost unbearable to behold.

In the last act these two odd couples are finally brought together in a party scene full of excellent jokes, social embarrassment and pain. It is here that Miss Plowman best demonstrates her amazing ability to turn on a sixpence, moving from hilarity to the harrowing and back again in the twinkling of an eye.

This is a remarkable play with candid performances from Steve Swinscoe, Sonia Ritter, Nicola Redmond and Tim Stern – especially endearing as Postman Oz. Deborah Paige’s production of a work which could easily descend to mawkish embarrassment is a great success.

Philip and Rowena
This is an exceptionally moving play by one of our most respected playwrights and is aptly described by the publishers as a journey of reconciliation and hope. Set in a hospice, the plays makes us aware of the total acceptance of the inevitability of death in the terminally ill and yet illustrates their exceptional devotion to life.

Philip and Rowena, he 70 and she 65, are patients in the hospice, he seeking a divorce from his very bitter wife and she longing to bring unity to her family. They find they have an instant rapport and a romantic friendship develops in which they discover an amazing capacity for fun. They plan an imaginary holiday in Italy and create a fantasy world of wining and dining, visiting the opera and even go on scooter rides before deciding to marry. This a poignant yet highly entertaining play which will provide many societies, I suspect, with their choice for competitive festivals, providing as it does opportunities for casting across the whole age range from mid-thirties to seventy.

Amateur Stage

Yours Abundantly
Reviews of “Yours Abundantly from Zimbabwe” at The Oval House Theatre;