Phil Morris reviews For the Grace of You Go I, a digital version of Theatr Clwyd’s acclaimed dark comedy penned by Alan Harris.
A below-the-radar pandemic of mental illness had long exerted its grip on the lives of thousands in the decade before Covid, and its pernicious effects have worsened steadily throughout months of lockdown. Alan Harris’ new play For the Grace of You Go I, therefore arrives on our digital screens as a timely and gripping exploration of the desperate plight of those caught between the rock of mental breakdown and the hard place of bullshit PIP assessments and government mandated back-to-work cul-de-sacs. James Grieve’s slick theatrical production navigates the shifts between harsh economic reality and the misperceptions brought about by debilitating illness with impressive narrative clarity and satirical bite. Both playwright and director treat their subject matter with intelligence and sensitivity, implicating society as a causal – or at least aggravating factor – in the development of certain psychological conditions.
The play opens with a monologue delivered by a supercilious film-director, seemingly advising an actor in how to perform the role of ‘Jim’. It quickly transpires that this ‘director’ is actually the interior voice of an unemployed Wrexham man named Jim who has Depersonalisation-derealisation Disorder (DPD). Jim experiences profound alienation or detachment from day-to-day reality, like many with DPD he is often unable to feel emotion and struggles to manage his life because he feels disconnected or estranged from his ordinary self, as he explains, “Life is a series of scenes I have no control over.” Rhodri Meilir plays him with commendable unshowy restraint and details the problems posed by DPD without recourse to the mannered tics and histrionics favoured by many actors who play the condition rather than the character. Meilir’s insightful work sharply delineates how Jim’s efforts to comprehend the objective reality of his situation are frustrated and compromised by the absurdities of social policy and the contemporary workplace.
Jim is declared fit for work despite the significant challenges posed by DPD once he admits to being able to operate a washing machine. Desperate to get his faulty boiler fixed, he is compelled to take a bogus job in a pizza factory via a shady work-for-benefits employment programme – placing pepperoni slices by hand so that they can be marketed as ‘artisanal’ rather than mass-produced. The air of unreality that hangs over Mazzeo’s pizza factory is enhanced by the micro-managing of Jim’s overworked and highly-strung line-manager Irina, played with well-judged intensity by Rem Beasley. Driven by her need to keep up mortgage repayments on her newly acquired flat, Irina ratchets up the pressure on a bewildered Jim who does not even recognise his hands as his own but as a “picture of my hands”. Harris is particularly good when satirising the lunacies of management-speak and alienation in the workplace, when Irina ultimately sacks a distraught and confused Jim she is skewered on the cleft stick of human sympathy and an inhuman process, “I want to give you a hug but HR says we’re not allowed to touch anyone”.
The third, less well-developed character in the play is Irina’s husband Mark, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jim at a local film night hosted by a mental health charity. The nature of Mark’s current or former illness is not specified and this proves to be problematic when the play climaxes in a set of violent confrontations involving all three characters. Darren Jeffries brings sufficient verve and energy to Mark’s bumptious, aspirational, wannabe alpha-maleness, but the script calls on him to strike a series of attitudes rather than convincingly portray a rounded human being. Perhaps the intention was to portray Mark as an empty personality lacking in maturity and falling back on meaningless stock phrases, but the unfortunate outcome is that his tragic ending falls rather flat as it is emotionally uninvolving. Harris’ play is refreshingly intelligent, sensitive in its portrayal of mental illness and occasionally very funny, but the unmotivated lurch into sensationalist melodrama in its third act deprives the drama of any capacity to move audiences. For the Grace of You Go I is a tragedy with no catharsis that leaves us a little wiser but not feeling that much better.
In terms of the production’s digital presentation, a necessary and welcome move by Theatr Clwyd toward widening accessibility while lockdown is keeping people outside theatres (but allowing them inside football stadia), there is the perennial problem of finding a workable acting style that works suitably for both in-person and digital audiences. While the performances of For the Grace of You Go I are rooted in emotional truth, the cast project vocally and emotionally to a theatre audience. The actors do not over-act, but in the close-up of a camera lens their performances, pitched to the back row of a studio space, sometimes read as too large or too loud. This is not to criticise this production in particular, but merely to observe that there is a problem inherent to streamed theatre performance that actors and directors have yet to resolve satisfactorily. More might have been made of Jim’s morbid fascination with Aki Kaurismaki’s film ‘I Hired a Contract Killer’ – clips of the cult classic feature in the production, but perhaps the parallels between the character’s distorted perceptions and Kaurismaki’s off-beat narrative might have been more fully blended in both play-text and staging. A direct interplay between stage and screen might have yielded an opportunity to bridge both forms, which is tantalisingly underexplored in this nonetheless thoughtful and absorbing show.
For the Grace of You Go I is a Theatr Clwyd production.