There has been an increase in the number of suicides over the past twelve months. I know this because my local Samaritans group had a stall at my local train station, trying to make people aware of how many deaths occur through people taking their own lives. By some strange quirk of fate that very evening, I ‘appen to watch Vinay Patel’s Free Fall at the offbeat 53Two theatre, which focuses much of it’s story on the plight of a troubled woman who sees no way out other than jumping off the nearest bridge.
Playing the young woman is Amie George and we find her in the act of taking her own life on the bridge of the Dartford crossing, until the toll booth supervisor – Roland – of said bridge interrupts her. Their relationship forms most of the play. We watch as we see that relationship develop over the course of one night, portraying the gamut of emotions that govern someone wanting to take their own life and someone trying to save it.
Part of the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival that runs for the whole of July, it is my first time visiting the eclectic 53Two theatre. A stone’s throw away from some of Manchester’s more finer establishments – HOME and the Palace Theatre – it’s vibe offers something other than the norm. Situated underneath some good old fashioned arches, it plays up to its quirky feel and is more than an apt venue for Rogue Bones’ production of Patel’s play.
I’ve often thought the act of talking someone off the ledge has all the ingredients of a powerful drama and using theatre as a medium only accentuates the impact of that drama upon its audience. Suicide makes for depressing drama, but a subject that continues to captivate an audience. One of this year’s most talked about television hits has been 13 Reasons Why, in which the lead character leaves behind a box of cassettes detailing the reasons behind her suicide.
Of course you’d think that the subject matter in question would lend itself to a foreboding, heavy hearted piece of theatre. Yet, it was anything but. The rapport between George and Matt James Brown is quietly affectatious. Patel’s wry script, along with Kash Arshad’s excellent direction, allows the frivolities to shine through the dark subject matter.
The light heartedness of it all is played up, and why not when you have two actors that can adeptly showcase the funny side of it all. Those moments are what makes the show compelling and endearing. And it is those moments that you recall once the show’s final curtain has fallen. Standing on the ledge having a telephone conversation about staplers, or the joys of watching Geordie Shore, or the taste of ready made microwaveable meals, or the genius pun-tastic moment when we make light of Roland’s name to the tune of Rawhide.
The biggest compliment I can give to both the leading actor’s performance is that you quickly buy into the chemistry of their kooky relationship, so much so that you are rooting for a happy ending for both of them.
There is no denying how much I thought Patel’s script got the idea of what I’d like to call ‘small talk’. It’s the irreverent poppycock indulged by two or more people in a bid to fill the awkward silence that ensues from a far more momentous set of events. It is like the time where I visited Pops after his quadruple heart bypass and spent the entirety ignoring the fact he was on death’s door to prattle on about the trials and tribulations of the Pakistani cricketing team.
Yet for all the genius of its small talk, where this performance suffers is how it handles it’s big dramatic moments in comparison. It fails to deliver the same level of calibre that it so easily manages when it is being light hearted. And Free Fall does not shy away from some pretty dark themes. Suicide, failed parenting, women in prison and domestic violence to name but a few. The trick in elevating this from an engaging tender piece to a gut wrenching tour de force is to flip those emotions with consummate ease.
I guess with any death, it is best to look back not dwelling on the bad times but looking at the good times that was had. Likewise, Free Fall may have some shortcomings in delivering those knockout moments of the dark themes it covers, it should still be commended for its quirkiness and the way it manages to warmly portray a touching relationship between two people in the moment.
Verdict: A touching and tender portrayal of two people whose paths cross one night on a bridge. At times it is laugh out loud funny, but never too far away from that overbearing sense of foreboding.