Writer: Tom Ryalls
Director: Deirdre McLaughlin
Tom Ryalls’ new play Can You See Into a Black Hole?, which has its premier at St Paul’s Churchyard, is about confronting a sometimes debilitating condition. Like David Hare’s examination of contracting Covid and Bryony Kimmings’ exploration of cancer, Ryalls’ story focuses on his experience of epilepsy and the effects of pre-emptively caring for him during childhood as his parents try to limit and manage his seizures.
Tom has his first epileptic seizure aged 8 in a tent in Scarborough with his dad nearby, and so begins years of medical treatments and precautions as Tom cannot stay overnight with friends, mustn’t get overexcited and has to sleep in a bed rigged with sensors that alert his parents if anything changes in his sleep. With dreams of being an astronaut, Tom can see the black hole that represents his condition, if only he could finally confront it.
Ryalls’ drama is a single-person narrative telling a retrospective story which focuses primarily on the years when Tom was between 8 and 13, largely explaining his own perspective on the restrictions he takes in his stride, dreams of a superhero future and the aftermath of the seizures he can barely remember. This child’s-eye-view is bolstered by interviews with both parents speaking to Tom who candidly recall their actions, worries and decisions, while fantasy segments address the mass in Tom’s head that becomes the visualised root of his condition.
There’s no beginning, middle or end as such, and Can You See Into a Black Hole? does not set out to offer any sense of completeness to its audience. Instead, this is a series of reminiscences, temperature checks taken at different points in Tom’s life in which the writer attempts to reconcile the apparent secrecy of his epilepsy diagnosis with the long-lasting physical and emotional effect on his parents whose devoted and quietly dedicated care is something the play openly celebrates.
It means the story sometimes lacks shape or feels dramatically repetitive as similar events occur across several scenes, and there is an adventure family frame that is largely forgotten as well as a link to a great grandfather that isn’t connected to Tom’s life strongly enough. Ryalls also focuses on the early years so how the character feels about his lack of independence, the struggles against parental authority that come with teenage individuality as well the social impact of having few friends is overlooked, but would have provided a depth and context to the story to balance the narrative.
Dan Fitzsimons presents Tom as forever 8-years old, eager and full of glee as he unwraps Christmas presents, and plans his future in the Power Rangers. Fitzsimons develops a warm rapport with the audience, connecting well with individuals as he presents Tom’s story, although some development in the characterisation to reflect how Tom matured would have slightly enhanced the performance.
Though not specifically aimed at a younger audience, there is a family show feel to Ryalls’ play and at 80-minutes Can You See Into a Black Hole? is an honest, sometimes soul-searching, account of a young man learning about life beyond himself and how a very personal illness has a significant effect on those around him.
Runs until 3 July 2021