Ally-Joh Gowan-Day was at Swansea Grand Theatre for the opening night of Richard Mylan’s debut play, Sorter, a tense two-hander starring Mylan, alongside Sophie Melville.
Richard Mylan steps into the world of playwriting with a bang – his debut play Sorter, running in the intimate space of the Swansea Grand this week, is a wonderful mix of dark and laugh-out-loud funny. From the start, Mylan challenges his audience, offering an intense two-hander exploring the struggles of addiction and the social stigma surrounding it. As well as writing the script, Mylan also stars opposite Sophie Melville – both are Swansea born and bred, and this type of authenticity runs throughout the production. There’s a complexity to the way the two roles gradually intertwine; initially their differences are marked, but as the play unfolds we see the similarities between their characters begin to emerge. Sensitively directed by Francesca Goodridge, Sorter is a beautifully ugly, bite-sized triumph.
Melville plays a woman struggling with addiction to many substances, including ‘juice’, cocaine and heroin. She introduces herself with a no-holds-barred monologue that delves into what it means to have ‘lost’ your children; it sets up the play’s tone perfectly. Melville’s character, referred to as Example A (until the final act revelations) continues to sort through her memories while trying to deal with the possibility of a future outside of addiction. Example B, played by Mylan, is presented first as a little boy, struggling with his relationship with his mum. He grows up to become an A&E nurse; Mylan presents A&E as a warzone, a battleground of vomit, blood and excrement. It is under the extreme pressures here that Example B’s struggle with addiction begins.
Mylan and Melville both give fully dedicated performances, hardly surprising given Melville’s previous work, and the autobiographical nature of Mylan’s unapologetically angry script. It feels in places like years of pain and frustration being thrown out at the audience. Still, the characters are funny, particularly Example A, who develops a rather spiky interaction with the audience that in the end provides a much-needed reprieve from the heavy stuff.
While the characters are complex, the set for Sorter embraces simplicity, consisting only of a bus stop lit with a familiar eerie night-time glow. The lighting is significant, symbolic as well as forming an integral interactive element for the actors to work their way through memories and recollections. Goodridge handles metaphor well and it brings a fresh depth to the script.
Mylan has said that it is the stigma around addiction that labels people as unworthy and undeserving of dreams and opportunities that kept him from being open about his own struggles. Mylan says, ‘Stigma is the root cause of a distinct societal lack of empathy and understanding. We have to challenge that. If we shift the stigma, we shift recovery towards more meaningful, prosperous outcomes that reconnect people more to who they really are’. In a nutshell, that’s what Sorter does. It shows us there is a societal gap in recovery, where stigmas are hard to shift and people are unlikely to forgive those who have slipped and need help getting back up. It asks those who judge to reach out a hand to those who need it.
It is a story that Goodridge feels is important for Wales, and Swansea in particular. This is a local story with universal resonance. It is in the set design, the subtle sound design from Russell Ditchfield that consists of heavy breathing and kids crying, as well as the emotional and effective score from ChipmanA (Steve Balsamo and Rob Reed, who provide us with their first written pieces of music for the stage) that bring together the whole play. Nothing is overbearing, it is all familiar and close. The production is tight and the play works like a well oiled machine. Sorter is an important piece of theatre.
Sorter plays at the Swansea Grand Theatre until Friday 10th March. Tickets information is available here.