Writer: Ed Edwards
Director: Cressida Brown
“Storytelling is inherent to getting clean,” actor Mark Thomas tells the audience when he appears as himself in the first half of two-part show England and Son, a UK tour arriving at the Arcola Theatre for a brief run. But before you see writer Ed Edwards’s autobiographical play about his experience of growing up, drugs and prison, it is important to understand the context of the play’s creation and what it means as Ed and Mark discuss dramatic structures within a recovery programme setting to see how the process of creativity, and theatre especially, can offer a redemptive purpose.
In an ordinary rehab meeting room, a group gather to discuss their experiences of addiction, the key moments that define that life and how they might turn that into a structured story with a beginning, middle and end. Later, Ed and Mark give their own story a theatrical treatment, scattered reflections on a childhood with an overbearing military father, teenage years in the care system and more than a decade in prison for a crime he cannot remember committing.
Edwards’ play, the longer second section at least, is an affecting account of buried trauma and misshapen memories, the ways in which stories heard and assimilated by a young boy come back to haunt him when he finally understands how greatly they had been distorted by the storyteller and the things they needed to believe about themselves. There could be much more to say about this in England and Son, drawing out the central father-son relationship and reflecting on the toxic inheritance of racism, soldierly bombast and masculine aggression that burden the younger man and create a deep trauma that shapes his life.
Edwards instead focuses the psychology of the play differently, layering remembrances with their consequences and the adopted narratives of others to jump between different passages of the character’s life. There is no clear distinction between writer and performer here or whose memories are being captured which mirrors the stories handed from father to son, the truth of which comes into question as the latter’s perspective on the adult world is altered by tragedy. Edwards essentially throws the audience around, taking them to different time periods, conversations and stages of the protagonist’s life, sometimes within the same scene to build a sense of the broken formation of personality and an individual’s battered trajectory.
It is a sharply written and ferociously performed piece, sub-characters coming to life and fading away in seconds, but all vividly situated in a working-class landscape of garages, lock-ups and pubs. Some moments don’t quite work, the long section with social worker Martha never brings her into view, a kindly figure who seems too good to be true and who behaves inappropriately without explanation and eventually disappears from the story.
The framing section at the start of the evening when Thomas chats to the audience as himself reveals its true purpose once the second tale is done, an opportunity to explain and celebrate how Edwards moved from prisoner to playwright, and the many people, whose voices and mannerisms Thomas recreates, who are trying to do the same thing. England and Son never spells anything out for you but is ultimately filled with the hope of second chances.
Runs until 25 November 2023