Death, it’s the one certainty in life and yet it’s something that’s not often openly talked about in our country. Thankfully Crowded Room, which creates theatre to help stimulate discussion, aims to change that with its latest production, The Colours, now playing at Soho Theatre. Written by Harriet Madeley, who also performs in the play, The Colours has been created from interviews with patients, doctors, nurses and volunteers from Ty Olwen Hospice in Swansea and Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff between May and October 2018 and aims to confront the taboo surrounding terminal illness.
The Colours focuses on five people: Jill, who battled breast cancer herself before husband Joe was diagnosed with untreatable prostate cancer, Joe himself who’s struggling to cope with his diagnosis; Ray who is dying from motor neurone disease; Erica whose ovarian cancer isn’t responding to treatment and auxiliary nurse Kath, who’s a composite of the nurses, therapists and volunteers at Ty Olwen Hospice. Over the course of 85 minutes their stories are brought to life as their interviews are streamed into actors’ headphones, their words repeated verbatim. At times the audience can hear snippets of these interviews sounding out from the headphones, a reminder that these are real-life stories from real people. The play switches between their stories, scenes at the hospice and meditation sessions. Interspersed between these are quotes from medical professionals who discuss their jobs working in palliative care.
Directed by Max Barton, The Colours is an imaginative and touching production which handles a difficult subject sensitively. It highlights the reality of living with a terminal illness, of the chaos that comes with diagnosis and the struggles that individuals face. But this is not a depressing production; there are touches of brilliant humour and the positive outlook of some of the patients shines through. Erica in particular is a positive woman, her smile rarely fading and her outlook upbeat even when life continues to challenge her; Ray has a wicked sense of humour, particularly when discussing his own funeral; while Joe and Jill’s relationship is simply beautiful to watch.
Luke W. Robson’s simple but effective design sees two stepladders set up at the back of the stage next to an hourglass fashioned from large paint tins. Each person on stage adds sand to the hourglass at odd moments during the play, a reminder that the clock is ticking for everyone. Elsewhere Ellie Isherwood’s creative sound design is equally effective, and there’s a particularly inspired moment involving a well-known pop song (no spoilers!)
The cast are all exceptional in their portrayals and at times it’s easy to forget that they’re repeating the words of others. Mark Knightley brings some welcome comic relief as Ray, Harriet Madeley exudes warmth and kindness as Kath, while Claire-Marie Hall is a ray of sunshine as the upbeat Erica. Ché Francis is a joy to watch as Jill, endearing but cheeky; while Morfydd Clark’s performance as Joe is sure to tug at the heartstrings, her haunted expression as Joe struggles to talk about his illness painfully realistic.
In Victorian society, the audience are told, death was openly talked about and sex was a taboo but in today’s society that’s now flipped. With more essential productions like The Colours, which openly talks about terminal illness, funerals and bucket lists, the conversation surrounding death is sure to open up, which can only be a good thing. The Colours is not only a reminder of the importance of living for today; it reiterates that these people living with terminal illness are still the same people they always were and that they’re still living their lives. A beautiful, warm and moving production, The Colours is not to be missed – just don’t forget your tissues.
The Colours is playing at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 17 August.
Photo credit: Hannah Anketell