“Who wants to be normal?”
Winner of the Off Cut Writing Award 2010 as a 15 minute short, Mitch Féral has now expanded his play, Sweet Engineering of the Lucid Mind, into an 80 minute piece which is playing at the Hen & Chickens at Highbury Corner. It is a tragicomic story of a long-married couple, he an astrophysicist with grand plans about the nature of reality and the possibility of time travel, she a history teacher struggling to deal with the early onset dementia of her once-vibrant husband.
Simon Nicholas was strong as the highly intelligent physicist suffering from the slow decline of his mental faculties, and subject to the vagaries of a mind that flits from memory to memory without logic or reason. He captured the quicksilver flashes of mood too, turning almost violent as his frustrations come close to boiling over. But it was Debra Baker as his long-suffering wife who really blew me away with her quietly dignified performance, setting her teeth to the grim reality of full-time caring for a loved one who can’t show gratitude. It is her lucidity that fleshes out the random memories that pop into her husband’s mind, telling the story of their courtship and marriage, the good times of the past which have inevitably turned into the more trying times of the present day, and she really makes one believe the strength of the love between these two people and just why she could never put him into a home.
The only thing slightly missing I thought, was a sense of the real anguish and desperation that can strike at even the most devoted of carers, Féral’s composition of the character of the woman lends her the patience of a saint even in the messiest of moments, where a touch more loss of composure might have been placed. Much of Féral’s writing is beautiful though, contrasting his lofty quantum talk with her historical teachings and there’s one lovely phrase that echoes round his mind, serving as an anchor for them both which is oft repeated throughout the show. And just as you think you’ve heard it one too many times, the finality with which Baker delivers the last line of it right near the end of the show is just quietly, devastatingly heartbreaking.
In Company Theatre is now accepting short play submissions for the Off Cut 2011 festival which will run from 27th September at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. 28 plays will be selected and presented to the public by a huge team of directors and actors and the audience will get to choose the winner, which will then have to the opportunity to be developed and given a run as Sweet Engineering… has here.
Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free
Booking until 2nd April