Playing ON presents the world premiere of the final play from their late co-founder Philip Osment, Can I Help You? which runs at the Omnibus Theatre until 21 March. I spoke with Director Jim Pope to find out more about this play, which examines how race, gender and profession intersect with issues of mental health.
Can you tell me about Playing ON and how it came about?
Whilst working at the National Youth Theatre I created the Playing Up programme, which is committed to delivering accredited learning to young people not in education, employment or training. Philip Osment who was a widely respected, award-winning playwright came to work on the programme as a workshop leader. He and I then formed Playing ON as a social enterprise with some graduates from the Playing Up programme to produce quality theatre, transforming the lives of disenfranchised people.
Our initial play, written by Philip and produced at the Roundhouse, was Inside about young fathers in prison. Since then we have been working in mental health settings, with adult service users and professionals in a range of agencies and institutions including psychiatric wards. Philip’s next play Hearing Things, looked at the dilemmas of psychiatry from both patients and staff. During this time, we became an associate company of Omnibus Theatre, who have been a great support and creative friend to us, helping us to develop and produce our work.
Where did the idea for Can I Help You? come from?
We delivered several drama engagement programmes working with both staff and service users, which consisted of a series of weekly workshops. These were followed by an intensive rehearsal process, which resulted in an improvised performance. We have so many stories of people whose lives have been transformed by taking part in our programmes; people who have gained employment, made lasting friendships and managed to keep out of hospital. There have also been doctors who have felt inspired and reconnected with why they joined the profession in the first place. In Can I Help You? we wanted to honour some of these people and create something which is both moving and funny. Can I Help You? is ultimately driven by hope and the capacity of people to support each other.
Can you tell me about the play?
It is a rollercoaster which lasts for just over an hour. There are two actors playing characters at different stages in their lives. It takes place over the course of one night on Beachy Head and the action is interspersed with flashbacks and delusions. It is very theatrical and supported by incredibly skilful performers who depict many worlds within a single space. It covers themes of race, gender, suicide and the human experience.
What can audiences expect?
Audiences can expect to be completely transported to several places in the space of an hour. They will witness incredibly powerful performances, beautifully crafted writing from a widely respected playwright, whom some critics called the “English Chekhov”, and they will leave the show enlightened and amazed. There is such a lot packed into this play, it reminds me of the William Blake poem “To See a World…”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
What has been the reaction so far?
The audience has found the show very moving and very cathartic. As with all our work, we place great emphasis on honouring the communities from where our ideas came. We have performed it at St Pancras Hospital, the Dragon Café, wellbeing project in Borough and the Blackfriars Settlement centre, among people with lived experience of the issues in the play. They have told us how authentic the play is and have been encouraged to talk about their own experience after seeing it.
We have also performed it to a conference of academics at the University of Kent, who leapt to a standing ovation. We opened at the North Wall arts centre in Oxford, where there was an after-show panel discussion hosted by Simukai Chigudu, Associate Professor of African Politics at Oxford University. Nearly all the audience stayed behind and were really keen to talk about the themes of the play and how much they had enjoyed it.
The reviewer from the Daily Info in Oxford said: I came away from the theatre not only feeling as though I’d witnessed a powerful, honest performance, but also having learnt a great deal about the themes discussed. Can I Help You? is a brilliant and important work of art.
What would you like Can I Help You? to achieve?
I would like it to feed into the conversation about mental health and how people can feel empowered to help without just leaving it to the doctors. We will continue to use it as the starting point for workshops we have within NHS settings and I would like it to encourage better communication between doctors and patients. I would like it to be touring during the summer of 2021 and I would like you to come and see it.
Can I Help You? plays at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham until Saturday 21 March.