Up Down Man was at Salisbury Playhouse 24 Feb - 12 March. It tells the moving story of a family struggling with bereavement. Centred around 29 year old Matty Butler (Nathan Bessell), who has Down’s Syndrome. Review by Tam Gilbert
Brendan Murray’s stand-alone play follows on from Myrtle Theatre Company’s 2010 production Up Down Boy (by Sue Shields), which also starred Bessell – the playwright’s son – as Matty. Murray’s play revisits the Butler family telling their story ten years on.
Our narrator is Mr Fox, “Matty’s favourite toy,” best friend and alter ego, who speaks on Matty’s behalf, and plays the flute to accompany his beautiful dance routines, which are interspersed between monologues and scenes throughout the play.
At first I was uncomfortable with another character speaking for Matty, but in fact, it was not at all patronising; Mr Fox at times tells us his own thoughts as well as Matty’s, and in this way we are able to learn about Matty’s likes and find out important facts he wants us to know about Down’s Syndrome.
Through Mr Fox, we are introduced to the Butler family: Matty’s parents Odette and Martin, and his sister Darcy.
Up Down Man addresses the question which faces every parent of an adult with a learning difficulty…. ‘What will happen if I'm not here?’
Odette has recently passed away, though her character is pivotal to the story. Her presence is an interesting theatrical device as it allows her to comment on the action, giving the audience her perspective on past events. Murray’s writing allows her to remain invisible to her family for the majority of the play, only speaking to them directly, individually and collectively, at the climax of the play – before, and during the ‘party,’ where they all feel her presence.
With his determination that the planned ‘party’ (his parents’ wedding anniversary) should still go ahead – even after his mother’s death – Matty shows us that he understands that life carries on, bringing his mother’s ashes to the celebrations in a decorated urn, and his mantra, “Friends, Family, Together” helps everyone see a way through.
We quickly learn that before her death, Odette had been very over-protective, taking Matty everywhere; he had never used a bus, travelled alone or lived away from home. Martin’s continued reactions to suggestions for his son’s independence around college and going out are “it’s always been this way…we all agreed.” He is very loath to change anything and feels he should now undertake the same role taken on by his wife. Darcy’s ideas that Matty can help his dad with the cooking and washing (thus preparing for life without both parents) are unthinkable at first, and we are told that Matty is best off upstairs, listening to his music, than helping.
However, the themes and issues raised – death, sexuality, love and loss – are the same as any parent and child struggling to form an understanding and work out their relationship after the loss of the other parent.
Bessell shows us in one of his dream sequences that Matty is gay. The touching duet between Matty and his imaginary lover (interestingly, also the choreographer) is evocative, sensual and strong, and the ensuing conversation is one any father would have, on first discovering that his son does not want a girlfriend.
Whilst the medical and social models are at odds story-wise, it is clear that Myrtle Theatre Company work very much to the Social Model in all other aspects. An example of this convolution, which I feel is intentional on the writer’s part, is in the characterisation of Matty’s father Martin, and his sister, Darcy. At the start of the play, Darcy (Emily Bowker) who lives away from the family home, gives Matty a mobile phone. His parents are astonished and can’t see the point.
Martin:“What did you give him that for? What will he do with it?”
Darcy: “Call people, take photos. I don’t know, what do most people do with a phone?”
Martin: “Who will he call?”
This exchange struck me as particularly poignant, as it sets the tone of characters’ attitudes towards Matty’s impairment for the rest of the story.
We are told in the programme notes that it was important to the company that the same actor was used as in Up Down Boy and that he was consulted at all stages of the writing and rehearsal process. Bessell’s acting was great, heartfelt and funny, and his dance, professional, polished and highly focused. I liked Murray’s easy narrative style, and the mix of scenes and monologues broke the words up, giving a thought-provoking dynamic.
Matty’s voice was heard throughout and his introduction (through the medium of Mr Fox) top and tailed the play:
“This is who I am – my name is Matty Butler. I'm not a child, I'm twenty nine years old. I like foxes, badgers, dancing, eating dinner, going bowling, EastEnders, dancing and foxes. I'd like a friend. Maybe Angel from Buffy. And we'd go on holiday and live together and have dinner and go dancing. I'm not a child you see. I'm twenty nine years old. My name is Matty Butler. This is who I am. And I like foxes.”
On leaving the theatre, a young woman who had attended the production with me, suddenly said: “It reminded me of me, and other people with Downs. Except, I am the opposite. I’ve been to college, live independently and my parents helped me to do this.”