Up Down Man at Tobacco Factory Theatres is the long awaited follow up to the critically acclaimed show Up Down Boy by Myrtle Theatre Company, and after seeing this show I will forever feel bereft that I didn’t catch the original theatre production too. Matty Butler has Down’s syndrome but he is not a child. He is a big man, twenty-nine years old. He likes foxes, badgers, dancing, eating dinner, going bowling, Eastenders, dancing and foxes. Matty and his family are struggling to come to terms with the recent loss of the family Matriarch, his mother Odette. Although gone, Odette is ever present throughout the show, as she also has to accept her death and how it impacts on the family. As they consider whether Matty should be able to lead a life that would encourage him to become more independent from his family, Odette struggles with the fact that she no longer has a say in any of this. Matty is the one who appears to be coping with Odette’s death the best; he is lost in his usual world of dance, and focusing on the party that will bring friends and family together. But will Matty’s father Martin allow himself to be persuaded to still hold a big wedding anniversary party, even though it is usually not the done thing to celebrate when one of the main protagonists cannot be present?
It is clear from watching the trailer to Up Down Man how much the cast loved working with Nathan Bessell who plays Matty. Artistic Director Heather Williams who also takes on the part of Odette Butler goes so far as to say that working with him has not only made her a better actor but also a better person. Choreographer Bryn Thomas reflects that Nathan listens to your body so well and is amazing to dance with. It is wonderful that Nathan is at the centre of this play at all times, and communicates so much through his movement and expression. The scenes where Matty imagines and then dances with his long wished for life partner ‘Jim’ (played by Bryn Thomas) are so achingly beautiful that the tears were pouring down my cheeks. For 7 years, I worked as a Speech and Language Therapy Assistant in the NHS, working with adults with learning disabilities. It made me upset and frustrated when the people I was working with that could not speak were labelled as not being able to communicate by some of the staff teams who were supporting them. It is proposed by some psychologists that up to 93% of communication is non verbal, and all of the people I worked with found their own ways of getting their messages across, it was just that sometimes it was us who were unable to decipher the meaning. Nathan Bessell takes this to the next level; his ability to express a feeling without using words, make the audience be deeply moved and then ultimately leave the theatre feeling uplifted and joyful was an incredible thing to witness. For the times when words are needed, Arran Glass provides a voice for Matty in his narrator role of Mr Fox, Matty’s favourite soft toy. Mr Fox is also a great musician and provides the memorable musical backdrop to this wonderful show.
This show also does not shy away from asking some difficult questions. People with Down’s syndrome are now statistically living longer, but what happens when they outlive their parents? The job of a parent is to prepare their child for a time when they will fly the nest. It’s a delicate balance, they need to protect them from some of the more difficult and painful parts of life, but also trust them with a certain level of independence which may in turn lead them to get hurt. If your child has a learning disability all the issues around preparing a person for independence become even more complex and fraught with difficulty. During my time with my speech therapy team, I felt that I became a much better practitioner when I became a parent myself. I was more able to empathise with the families of the people I was working with and the issues that having a child with a learning disability brought up. However, had I been able to see this show when I was engaged in this work, I think it would have made me even better at my role. It was an honest, engaging, thought provoking piece of theatre from director Brendan Murray, and I absolutely fell in love with it.
There are some shows which remind me of how incredibly privileged I am to be able to review theatre on behalf of Weston-super-Mum, and Up Down Man is one of them. Quite simply, this is one of the most beautiful, uplifting, moving and joyful pieces of theatre I have ever seen.
Up Down Man is on at Tobacco Factory Theatres until 18th November 2017
Review by Karen Blake