UP DOWN MAN at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Bristol-based Myrtle Theatre’s mission is to present work that is both inclusive and imaginative; with Up Down Man they have most certainly succeeded in doing so. Together with Tobacco Factory Theatres and Salisbury Playhouse they have created an uplifting, optimistic play that nevertheless gives an honest, clear-eyed picture of the challenges that confront individuals with learning difficulties when they reach adulthood.

We meet Matty Butler, a young man with Down’s Syndrome who thinks his family should accept that he is no longer a child. Through his alter ego, Mr Fox, he tells us that he is twenty-nine years old, and that he likes ‘foxes, badgers, dancing, going bowling, Eastenders, dancing and foxes’. People either see foxes as cute, or as a pest to be done away with.

Children with Down’s Syndrome are often seen as cute too, but advances in medical care now mean that they survive well into adulthood, and what then? Matty is determined that one day he will leave home, live in a flat and form new relationships. He is also determined that the recent death of his mother should not prevent his family from holding a party to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. His father, Martin, is doubtful on both counts.  Still grieving, he doesn’t want a party, and he is not at all sure that he is capable of steering his much-loved son towards any degree of real independence. Darcy, his daughter, is more certain that Matty has the right to lead his own life and make his own decisions.

Joe Hall gives a sympathetic portrayal of a well-intentioned, but bemused dad, out of his depth since the death of his wife. He confesses that he was very fearful of the future when his son was born, and he now finds himself plagued with similar fears again. What kind of future lies ahead for Matty? All loving parents have these anxieties, but when the child has learning difficulties the fears are amplified.  Martin knows that ‘fear is the real disability’, but he struggles to overcome his worries. His daughter is more positive.

Emily Bowker is excellent as Darcy, the forthright sister who accepts her brother for what he is – a young man with a young man’s needs. Watching them all with a degree of ironic detachment is Odette, Matty’s recently departed mum. She may be dead but she is a very real presence, commenting wryly on her husband’s lack of domestic skill and appalled at the idea that Matty might ever leave home. After all, he was her Peter Pan, the boy who was never going to grow up. Heather Williams plays Odette as a splendidly robust ghost, quick to criticise her doubt-ridden husband, but also beginning to wonder if she had been too protective of Matty. She had not sent him to college, she had not even taught him how to catch a bus. When Matty’s other brothers and sisters left home, did she end up needing him more than he needed her?

Rather splendid with his bushy tail and furry ears, actor-musician Arran Glass is Mr Fox; he provides the musical accompaniment to Matty’s dancing and, at times, he offers a commentary as events unfold. Mr Fox is a free spirit who embodies Matty’s wish for independence. Matty himself is played by Nathan Bessell, a gifted dancer with great stage presence, and undoubtedly the star of the evening.  We see a young man whose disability is very far from being what defines him as an individual; he has his own idiosyncrasies, his own sense of humour, and his own hopes and dreams. It’s a captivating performance, a highlight of which is a touching pas de deux, in which Matty imagines a future relationship with another young man, danced by choreographer Bryn Thomas.

Written and directed by Brendan Murray, Up Down Man is funny, informative, quirky and, at times, very moving.  It has the power to make you re-examine your own ideas about a whole range of issues around inclusivity and the rights of those who are seen as different from ourselves. Last night’s youthful audience clearly loved Up Down Man, and no wonder.  It’s a splendid, celebratory show.   ★★★★★    Mike Whitton   10th November 2017
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport