Review: Living with Luke: Wrestling with an excellent play

Living With Luke by Paul T. Davies – Sat 26th July 2014 – Passmores Academy.

BY Ian Beckett

HAVING a ringside seat of a wrestling ring for a theatrical event centred upon living with a child with autism – “Living with Luke” – it not a typical Saturday evening – for me at least. However that’s where I found myself in the school hall of Passmores Academy, Harlow.

I know very little about the autism spectrum – I had an excellent conversation with Sam Fancett who runs the charity Pact for Autism a few weeks back, I’ve read a bit on the subject and like most people I have my cultural reference points. I know a great deal more about theatre and when it comes to wrestling, like many 50 year olds, I grew up with my Mum and my Nan shouting words they seldom used, at the telly on a Saturday afternoon, at Jackie Pallo and Mick McManus.

Although this wasn’t an audience of wrestling aficionados the open lines of “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble” with the Ref (Shane Whitworth) winding up the crowd set the tone where the audience couldn’t fail to be engaged and on so many emotional levels. Shane is the ringmaster, but not the master of the ring. His comic timing and almost irritating interjections provide vital relief from the gruelling battle that unfolds over the next 90 minutes. With Danson Thunderbolt (Steve Hannam) in the Blue Corner and The Autistic Shadow (Paul Tyrrell) in the Red Corner a battle commences where each forearm smash and crash to the floor of the wrestling ring echoes the “sounds of fears awaking and dreams disappearing”.

In my experience, nothing winds a director or cast up more than reading a theatre review that is 90% a summary of the plot however, to convey the strength of this piece I feel I have to draw upon its structure.

Round One: Danson is dealt a body blow with the revelation that Luke (Ben Maytham) has Autism. The blows are hit low and hard, dirty and realistic in the wrestling ring of emotions, drawing cheers, boos and gasps from the audience. It’s hard to describe Ben Maytham’s performance, understated by necessity, observant and above all true. Danson and his family are bruised by the revelation that much of the years ahead will be without help or support.

Round Two: Luke develops Epilepsy. The Autistic Shadow hits below the belt. Paul Tyrell’s showmanship menace isn’t theatrical – he means it and revels in it. He is an anti-hero that the audience loves to hate, albeit with a degree of discomfort, for he is after all a manifestation of Luke, who draws our – what? Sympathy? Curiosity? Compassion? Discomfort?
When Luke says to Danson “I love you” we don’t know whether to laugh or cry and the tension is broken only by his demand for more “Roast Potatoes”.

Round Three: Desperation – and the metaphors within this carefully crafted play come into their own – fighting outside the ring and very much in the audience’s faces, a karaoke moment that could have quite easily jarred reinforces Danson’s despair only to be broken with the brilliant suggestion that everyone needs a Luke if only to deal with cold callers on the phone!

Round Four and Five: developing the themes and challenges that face Danson and Luke and how when precious fleeting moments of a child’s love appear, moments many of us take for granted, they can all to quickly be snatched away by The Autistic Shadow.

The play’s finale is “A Love Letter to Tiddles” – subtle, poetic, passionate and above all human. It had many of the audience reaching for a handkerchief before the cast, crew and director received a well-deserved standing ovation. It was very much Steve Hannam’s evening – how could it not be and I wonder if anyone could play the part of Danson with the same level of skill, truth and emotion. However, I look forward very much to seeing more work from director Paul T. Davies who for all the action and chaos inside and outside the ring managed to craft a piece of theatre equally dependent upon the stillness and preciseness of every move and gesture of his cast. “Never give up”.

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