I feel like in the last fortnight I’ve been bombarded with plays about orphans. This is not a criticism but an interesting trend in terms of what themes are prominent right now or what I’m noticing thematically as an audience member. Perhaps it’s in the forefront of my consciousness because I lost all my family decades ago (don’t despair-it hasn’t made me bitter at all…) and these plays that touch on conversations with the dead reach in and firmly grip my heart.
Tom Holloway’s ‘Forget Me Not’, a co-commission between Belvoir, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, certainly grabbed me where I live and if not the fact that I was watching it in a theatre full of school students who’ve seen me blubber at every other orphan play we’ve seen recently, I had to show some decorum. If they start thinking I’ve gone soft, my reputation as a hard-nosed sadist will be crushed forever. So I temper my review by saying that I did deliberately distance myself from the emotion. When counting the lights stopped working I found doing maths problems in my head was a fine distraction. Isn’t that pathetic? Yes, but also very effective.
‘Forget Me Not’ delves into the life of Gerry (Colin Moody) and it draws upon the true stories of the ‘orphans’ who were shipped from Liverpool to Australia and the experiences that awaited them here. Whilst Gerry’s story is more to do with his present and future, it can’t help but explore its past in looking at his life now, what it might have been and how his inability to love and his penchant for self-sabotage is inextricably connected to these experiences.
Director, Anthea Williams, treats the play with great respect and as Belvoir’s Literary Manager, I suppose she understands how much a playwright can offer us with his or her words and as director, taking them and giving them the focus of the stage to explore each moment is an important rite of the work’s passage. That’s not to say that Belvoir’s design de jour, the rotating stage with the smashed set by the play’s end as designed by Dan Potra, didn’t go unnoticed. It was a fitting choice, demonstrating the devastating effects of a home that never was and the truth behind the harshest of lies.
There are some really powerful moments on stage (where even the maths problems couldn’t completely override the subject). They are evocative in creating the experiences of Gerry and his institutionalisation. When Gerry talks about sneaking out of the orphanage at night as a child just to hug someone and the punishment inflicted once discovered, it captures a life where love is withheld, foreign and forbidden and goes a long way in explaining Gerry’s own issues with love and intimacy, typified by his relationship with his daughter, Sally (Mandy McElhinney).
The reconstructed or imagined scenes with his mother Mary (Eileen O’Brien) were also beautiful and made all the more potent when we see Mary as she really is, frail and feisty, in her scene with Mark (Oscar Redding).
Holloway plays with linear time, reality and imagination tracing two different lives for Gerry, those with his daughter and those with his mother. Although some of the teenagers in the audience struggled to connect with the structural narrative construct, most got it and like me, enjoyed how we had been manipulated into following these storylines so artfully.
Colin Moody was the perfect casting as curmudgeonly Gerry. You always feel that Moody is treading the fine line between genius and feral animal (and I’m talking about in real life here). Firstly I have to congratulate him for not ripping the heads off the kids in the audience who asked the typical stupid questions post show. That was a test of fortitude for Moody, who is no lover of foolish people or thoughtless statements. Playing an angry, disconnected, vulnerable man whose barriers to love drive every decision was a skilled portrayal. Moody is a terrific actor and also a terrifying one. But don’t we want our actors to question and make it difficult when there is integrity in the process behind it? I think we do.
The cast were all strong and a special mention to Eileen O’Brien, whose portrayal of Mary, when stripped down to her reality, was heartbreaking and humorous at the same time. What a brilliant discovery for the Australian stage, particularly after her years of experience and success in the UK. I’m so glad she came to Belvoir to do this show.
I really would recommend you see this show and forgo the algebra. Let yourself swim in the ideas of ‘Forget Me Not’ and consider that the greatest tragedy of this play is its truth.