Writer: James Fritz
Director: Matt Harrison
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
We live in a world that fetishes youth, having all of life before you can give you power, opportunity and, validation. But while popular culture seems geared towards millennials, we know that economically the baby boomers have had the best of it, and for the rest of us the future seems bleak – no chance to own our own homes, unstable pensions and greater uncertainty. James Fritz’s 2016 play The Fall, for the National Youth Theatre asks with dwindling societal resources, should the old make way for the young?
Using three related scenarios, Fritz’s play, currently in revival at the Southwark Playhouse, mixes black comedy and drama to make a strong and articulate statement on the ways in which our political system is failing young and old alike. In each situation, the elderly people seen or referred to have very little quality of life because of neglect, loneliness or forms of dementia that open-up debates about euthanasia and the burden of care. Fritz’s skill as a writer is in suggesting that age has far more to do with how you are treated than the number of birthdays.
In the first set-up, Niyi Akin and Jesse Bateson as “Boy” and “Girl” have a sweet, slightly cheeky and equal relationship as they look for somewhere quiet for sex. Having ruled out the Macdonald’s toilet, they head to Mr Butler’s house – a bedridden OAP that “Girl” visits once a week. What follows is a surprising story in which moral responsibility and courage swing back and forth between the couple.
Both performers bring a layered complexity to their characters, with Akin suggesting a young man who finds old people “disgusting” in the abstract but won’t hear a bad word about his grandma who’s “young at heart”, while Bateson’s “Girl” is braver and more worldly, but ultimately less generous that her boyfriend.
Likewise, in the second set-up it is the female character “Two” (Sophie Couch) who takes decisive action in a fast-moving, rather black-hearted story about the burdens of a young couple. Fritz takes a very different structural approach in this piece, showing a series of short scenes that take the pair from early dates, through marriage and children to their 50s caring for a dependent mother, using Christopher Nairne’s lighting design to help the audience flash forward.
While making and unmaking the bed Couch as “Two” and Troy Richards as “One” slowly reveal the growing pressures the couple face with rent increases and unpaid bills draining their meagre resources. The twist when it comes is both subtle and shocking, as the pair actively weigh up their responsibility to their growing son and to an ageing parent. It is testament to Fritz’s writing and both performers that the darkness feels credible and a natural evolution of the earlier scenes.
Finally, Fritz takes us to a future care home facility that holds four elderly patients all distinctly created with their own worries, fears and expectations of their remaining life. Although a touch too long, as with the earlier pieces, characters are offered the “other option”, and while not surprising, Fritz explores what aspects of old age drives individuals to choose that over a rather more limited and empty life.
Led by Josie Charles as “A” who is forced to rethink her life as circumstances change, the four inmates have individuality, creating interest in the how they ended-up there. Jamie Foulkes as self-sacrificing “C” evokes plenty of pity, while Jamie Ankrah’s “D” is irascible and deluded in equal measure, and Madeleine Charlemagne’s “B” is friendly until offered self-preservation.
“Age today is different to age 20 years ago” one interviewee explained. Energetically directed by Matt Harrison, this National Youth Theatre production of The Fall is an imaginative conversation about the problems of an ageing society. With no obvious plans for the future, no homes and no funds, Fritz asks just what old age will look like in 60 years, and what value life should have regardless.
Runs until 19 May 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks