Dinosaur Dreams – Etcetera Theatre, London

Writer and Director: Will Adolphy
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

There remains a considerable stigma around mental illness and many of the issues facing sufferers and carers are poorly understood. Will Adolphy’s new play Dinosaur Dreams showing at the Etcetera Theatre goes some way to addressing this by following a young student who is hospitalised after a “psychotic episode”. Working with The Aurora Foundation, Flux Theatre Company has created a show that takes a calm and insightful perspective on mental health.

We first meet Charlie during his first assessment meeting shortly after arriving at the hospital. He’s anxious, dissatisfied and desperate to leave, certainly not there of his own volition. Over time Charlie endures therapy sessions with the doctor, tense visits from home and engagement with the other inmates, which makes him withdraw further into himself, unwilling to believe he is anything like them.

Adolphy’s play is an honest and engaging account of one young man’s struggles within himself, and the writing charts the process of unlocking his behaviour in an understated and effective way. With Charlie’s character, it sidesteps cliché and, although we learn the reason for his trauma, the audience is left in no doubt that his struggle is far from over.

Key to this a quite astonishing central performance from Ben Manz as Charlie. Throughout he is riven with frustration which manifests itself in the subtlest of occasional shakes to the leg or hand and a sense that he’s permanently bottling-up emotions desperate to break forth but always held back. At times he physically pushes against the walls in a desire to escape, while at others he fights back the tears as the doctor comes a little too close to the truth. As the performance unfolds you see that his surly bravado and isolation is disguising a deep-rooted fear of losing control but, while we see Charlie battling with his issues, Manz makes him seem entirely ordinary.

Yet, while you’d have to go a long way to see a performance as good as Manz’s, it does, unfortunately, expose the weakness in the rest of the cast and elements of the story. None of the other characters feels entirely real, they have virtually no depth and while we frequently see a doctor (Nigel Fyfe) and nurse (Leigh-Anne Gilbert), there’s no real sense of the difficulty of their role. Fellow patient Ruby (played by Ella Road) is given more to do and her own backstory but her purpose is to trigger Charlie’s recovery so we only see her as a reflection of him rather than a fully dimensional person with her own concerns.

A dream sequence early on feels a little out of kilter with the rest of the production and the role of Charlie’s mother (Louise Lingwood) is anaemic and overplayed. There’s a lovely section in the middle as Charlie begins to thaw during an X-Factor-style “dream-off” with Ruby and more of that contrast of normality in an extraordinary environment would add greater texture. Dinosaur Dreams does take an important step forward in exploring how mental health issues affect ordinary people while creating awareness of the support available. As a piece of theatre,there are things to address, but Manz’s performance as Charlie is truly impressive.

Runs until10 July | Image: Contributed

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