Distance at Park Theatre
Distance tells the story of one man to highlight the plight of thousands more like him. The play was written by Alex McSweeney after five men he knew killed themselves in little over five years.
Steven (the brilliant Adam Burton) is an academic, recently separated from his wife and child. While travelling north to a job interview in Manchester he runs into an old friend, Alan (the equally stunning Abdul Salis). They begin to talk, opening up old wounds for Steven as his past and present begin to blur. Just as time is blurred and shrunk, physical distances are manufactured, removed and remoulded throughout.
Distance’s brilliant staging, which uses as its focal point a train window – the passing countryside it displays occasionally interrupted by intrusive scans of Steven’s skull – is a constant reminder of the train journey and its consequences for the academic’s distance from home, and onrushing destination. The staging goes far beyond that though, creating a constantly shifting landscape that reflects the turbulence of the protagonist’s mind – as he and Alan fail to fully understand each other with words they retreat slowly apart, adding a physical distance to their metaphorical one.
Different experiences bleed into the carriage, and we see Steven and his wife Sonja (Lindsay Fraser), sometimes accompanied by the disembodied voice of their son, Jasper. Others try to reach Steven, including Christian evangelist Folami (impeccably portrayed by Doreene Blackstock). All the while, Alan remains in his train seat, working away at his laptop on the fringes of the stage – a constant reminder of the physical immediacy and demands of everyday life, even as Steven struggles to deal with the “black dog” inside his head.
‘The Duke” (Richard Corgan), a fellow passenger and pseudo-spiritual leech, provides some comic relief. Still living in the home of his “birthers” and forced to conceal himself “in the shitter” as the conductor passes, he makes the audience – and even maybe Steven – forget for a little while, highlighting the insidious unpredictability of mental health.
The dialogue is incredibly sharp, a beautiful poetry full of wit and life, which also seems slightly too perfect, as if someone has edited it in the retelling.
Ultimately, the final distance is between Steven and himself – as his hands tear and claw at his head in a way that owes as much to ballet as theatre, the true horror of his situation becomes clear. The only people not kept at arm’s length are the audience as Distance runs straight through a breathless 90 minutes building towards its inexorable conclusion. This play tackles a serious issue with a grace, poise, boldness and fierce intelligence that means it lives long in the memory.
Photo: Richard Davenport
Distance is at Park Theatre from 5th September until 29th September 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.