Hushabye Mountain – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Writer: Jonathan Harvey

Director: Nick Bagnall

Few things make you feel your age like a revival of a play you saw the first time around. The feeling must be even more acute for director Nick Bagnall who performed in the original 1999 production of Hushabye Mountain.

Following his death from AIDS Danny (Nathan McMullen) is stuck in the afterlife. He has been given his wings, but unresolved issues are delaying him from progressing further. On earth, Danny’s lover Connor (Layton Williams) and his best friend Lana (Amy Dunn) married to Connor’s brother Lee (Matt Henry) try to come to terms with their loss. Meanwhile, Danny’s mother Beryl (Jodie Prenger), whose abusive husband forced her to disown their son, descends into mental illness and occasionally seems to be possessed by the spirit of Judy Garland.

The online production is filmed live in Hope Mill theatre but without an audience. Director Nick Bagnall concentrates on the performances rather than replicating a live theatre environment. The camera focuses on close-ups of the actors which brings out the vulnerability, almost fragility, of Nathan McMullen and the intensity of Layton Williams’s raw, anguished performance.

Despite the mystical setting, the tone of the production is naturalistic; to the extent theatrical aspects- the cast visibly moving around props- feel a little out of place. Yet there are times when the theatre aspects work really well- a shadowy figure watching Danny’s friends is gradually revealed to be his mother. A stained-glass image of the Virgin Mary lights a fag. Jocelyn Meall’s set combines a mixture of supernatural beauty with a tatty backstage ambiance in which odd props litter the stage. There is a sense not so much of a life interrupted as unfinished.

Jodie Prenger blends the theatrical and the recorded elements together perfectly. A victim of paranoid delusions and subject to hilarious flights of fancy Beryl is a larger-than-life character who leaps off the screen. Yet Prenger anchors Beryl in realistic guilt and distress. In moments of potential high camp – when Prenger sings lullabies – her performance is stark and skeletal, so the effect is not comforting but a lingering sense of loss.

The absence of an audience is felt most keenly in comic moments where the lack of a burst of laughter to break the tension or warm the mood is very apparent. The title, Hushabye Mountain, makes one expect a sentimental mood yet director Bagnall moves to the other extreme towards a claustrophobic atmosphere of tense emotions.

While Jonathan Harvey’s script is passionate, the emotions featured tend to be the shabby ones we are reluctant to acknowledge rather than grand gestures of devotion. The characters are struggling to keep their feelings under control or even understand what they are experiencing.  Anger is rarely far from the surface and love is far from romantic. Danny’s illness realistically strains his relationship with Connor who, after Danny’s passing, struggles with survivor’s guilt as he tries to move forwards. The play is structured to allow comparisons between the development of Danny’s and Connor’s relationship and Connor’s faltering efforts to find a new lover.  Danny, raging that he did not come out he got out, has a shocking degree of unresolved anger with his parents who could not reconcile with his sexuality. Beryl is such a mess of emotions she retreats from reality.

Although set at the time of the AIDS epidemic Hushabye Mountain’s themes of coping with loss and learning to forgive make it a perfect revival for the troubled present.  The gradual move from anger towards reconciliation ensures a bittersweet mood of regret becomes the dominant emotion in this fine production.

Continues online on 18-20th June 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

a perfect revival

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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