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RESPONSIBLE OTHER – Hampstead Theatre, London.

responsible otherThe business of serious illness has been the downfall of many a dramatist. Otherwise incisive writers too often become mired in cliché, falling victim to the temptation to characterise invalids as sweetly suffering saints and their carers as self-sacrificing martyrs. However, in her début play Responsible Other at the Hampstead, Melanie Spencer demonstrates remarkable skill in presenting us not with ideals, but with three-dimensional people – confused, well-meaning, pragmatic, stumbling, achingly normal.

We might wish that extreme circumstances could reveal us as superhuman, imbued with boundless patience and an uncanny ability to see the big picture, but often the reverse is true. When faced with something life-altering, we’re far more likely to grasp for small certainties, to express fear, anger and unhappiness in petty, irrational outbreaks, and to find we’re unable to connect with the person who is bound to us most closely.

Fifteen-year-old Daisy (a revelatory Alice Sykes) has more reasons than most adolescents to feel that life is totally unfair. She should be taking mock GCSEs, sneaking into clubs with dubious fake IDs and mooning over boys with BFF Alice; instead, she’s locked in a daily battle with the debilitating physical symptoms of lupus and with her father, Peter.

The two could bond in their muted grief over the loss of Daisy’s mother to cancer, or in their shared experience of her autoimmune condition, but, captured by Spencer with biting realism, the claustrophobia of upgrading an already fraught father/teenage daughter relationship to that of carer and sufferer threatens to consume them. Daisy’s recognisably teen stroppiness masks deeper pain as she struggles against the constraints of her father’s control – he tracks both her symptoms and academic work with dogged determination – and against the limitations of her own body.

A dexterous script similarly masks some of the major emotional beats beneath brilliantly witty and sharply observed exchanges. Most scenes are two-handers, making each one an opportunity to expound on the central theme of those who need support and those who supply it. Thus Peter’s estranged sister-in-law, Diane, roped in to help with Daisy’s trips to the hospital and paralysed by the past, is able to unburden herself to a relative stranger, Nigerian nurse Bola; Bola, in turn, can safely vent about problems with her own family.

Daisy fiercely battles her vulnerability in the presence of her father and her friend, but finds she can open up to Diane, who is also a sounding board for the exhausted Peter. The one misstep is the presence of Daisy’s teacher (dubiously portrayed by Danielle Bux, Gary Lineker’s missus), who pops up in one scene solely as a means for Peter to express himself – Spencer sometimes doesn’t trust that she has made a point, and feels the need to hammer it home elsewhere. Otherwise, this is a thoughtful exploration of the dynamic of relationships; while maintaining strength in one might feel wholly necessary, finding a safety net in another can be a blessed relief.

However, Responsible Other is also joyously funny, particularly in its deadpan depiction of the life-or-death high drama that is a juvenile female friendship and in the characters’ awkward groping towards the right way of behaving. Tricia Kelly is extraordinary in a subtle performance, hinting at Diane’s fractured psyche but also wresting sly comic touches from the more uncomfortable encounters, while Yetunde Oduwole and Candassaie Liburd lend strong support as Bola and Alice respectively.

Andrew Frame is courageously raw as Peter, never shying away from the uglier aspects of his response to adversity and effectively demonstrating the agonising tedium of day-to-day coping, from figuring out the logistics of treatment to reopening the throbbing wound of loss at unexpected moments. But the standout star is the utterly compelling Sykes, movingly believable as a teenager fighting to suppress the scared child and both wishing for and bowing beneath the burden of terrifyingly adult experience.

The play could do with tightening up, smoother transitions and a clearer climax, but Spencer has a fearless new voice and terrific instincts, sensing when to release information effectively and how to let extensive research (at St Thomas’ Lupus Unit) enrich her work without it hobbling the drama. A life-affirming triumph.

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Reviewed 02/07/13/

By Marianka Swain

20th June – 20th July 2013
Hampstead Theatre, London, NW3.

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