The Colours – Soho Theatre, London

Writer: Harriet Madeley

Director: Max Barton

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

A verbatim play about palliative care and death may not be the usual summer offering in London’s West End but Crowded Room’s new show at Soho Theatre warms the air rather than chills it. Following the lives of four people with terminal illnesses, The Colours successfully navigates the line between sensitivity and sentimentality.

Realistic discussions of death are hard to get right on stage, as exhibited in the much maligned and much praised A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer of 2016. At the end of this show audience members were invited to call out the names of those they had lost to cancer, an exercise that some critics found to be overly mawkish, while others enjoyed the catharsis that the show provided.

There is no audience participation in The Colours, but like A Pacifist’s Guide it relies on the testimonies of real people. We can just about hear the voices of these real people spooling out of the headphones of the actors, who repeat the words to the audience trying to capture the right accents and the right intonations.

We meet Jill and Joe in their home in Swansea. Jill, 60, has had a cancer scare but the lumps in her breast turned out to be benign; Joe’s prostate cancer is inoperable. Jill is bright and breezy, still thinking of future days, fussing over her record collection, while Joe is anxious, but resigned. In some pleasingly understated gender-blind casting, Ché Francis plays Jill, his eyes perfectly matching the mischief in the voice he hears in his ears. As Joe, Morfydd Clark is breathtakingly good, and it’s hard not to want to jump up and give her a supportive hug, as she communicates the fear of this 65-year-old man entering the very last days of his life.

Erica is a single woman, cheerful to the last, stories of her past as a teacher cascading out of her, but Claire-Marie Hall, gives her a vulnerability that may be lost in hearing the voice alone. Ray, played by Mark Knightley, is dying from motor neurone disease, but copes using his gallows humour and his straightforwardness. Joe, Erica and Ray meet and become friends at Ty Olwen Hospice, which provides activities such as meditation, painting and Tai Chi.

Whenever these four main people – characters seems the wrong word for these are actual people – are on stage the play is riveting, but the interludes, based on interviews with health care professionals and delivered within a Tai Chi routine, are not as stimulating and draw out the 85 minutes unnecessarily. It’s a relief to be back with Joe, Erica, and Ray, so real do they seem.

Each person on stage, including writer Harriet Madeley who plays one of the therapists at the hospice, carries around their own paint tin, which are not full of colours but of sand. Behind them stands a homemade hourglass, designed by Luke W. Robson, which, even though it marks the passing of time, is not as obvious as it seems. Altogether it’s an impressive production.

But the real stars of the show are Joe, Jill, Erica and Ray, and the way they approach death is humbling and instructive. It may be dark subject matter, but there are, as the title confirms, colours here.

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