Theatre Review: Up Down Man @ Tobacco Factory Theatres
by Polly Hember
“This is who I am – my name is Matty Butler. I’m not a child, I’m twenty-nine years old. I like foxes, badgers, dancing, eating dinner, going bowling, Eastenders, dancing and foxes. I’d like a friend. Maybe Angel from Buffy. And we’d go on holiday and live together and have dinner and go dancing. I’m not a child you see. I’m twenty-nine years old. My name is Matty Butler. This is who I am. And I like foxes.”
Up Down Man follows on from the supremely successful Up Down Boy, which introduced Matty and his family at a critical point in his adolescence. Now, Matty is a “big man” and Myrtle Theatre Company are examining difficult tensions about adulthood, independence, growing up and loss. These themes are thickly woven throughout the narrative, tight with fear and heartbreak. They are beautifully unravelled with provocative yet tender handling, insightful writing and an incredible performance from Nathan Bessell, who plays the fox-loving Matty.
Opening with Matty dancing on stage with Mr Fox (Arran Glass) narrating Matty’s predicament (and boasting that he is Matty’s favourite toy); Matty is twenty-nine, he would like a boyfriend and his mother Odette (Heather Williams) has just passed away.
As Mr Fox goes onto tell us later, we are lucky to live in an advanced world where the life expectancy for individuals born with Down’s syndrome is now well into middle or old age. But this raises difficult and painful questions; what happens when individuals such as Matty outlive their primary caregivers; their parents?
Up Down Man tenderly answers this question, presenting a family struggling with heavy grief; a widowed husband (Joe Hall) who has made oven-cooked pizza five times in a row for tea, with six weeks of dirty clothes sitting in the laundry basket (the washing machine has too many buttons), is dealing with the fear of being a single parent taking care of Matty. A concerned and feisty sister Darcy (Emily Bowker) wants to encourage Matty to do more, to take buses, to meet people and pursue the idea of living independently with a gorgeous and dreamy boyfriend “Jim” (Bryn Thomas). Matty himself is excitedly preparing for his parent’s Ruby wedding anniversary, practicing his rendition of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ round the clock. They are all struggling to move forward. Odette herself is struggling with the transition also; she is on-stage with the rest of the ensemble for most of the play, providing brilliant comic interjections as her family go about their daily routines.
For play written about fear of change and stasis, there is an incredible progression that comes from Brendan Murray’s brilliant script writing and Bessell’s dance. The writing and Bessell’s movements engage with grief, fear, loss, and also hope, love and trust. The dual narratives (one spoken, one unspoken) provide a multifaceted piece of theatre that conveys a multitude of emotions in unique and interesting ways. One of the highlights of the play was a dreamy sequence where Matty dances with his imagined boyfriend Jim; a waltz that was powerful and poignant.
The fantastic Mr Fox muses aloud that the public’s reaction to people with Down’s syndrome is similar to people’s stance on foxes: some people think they’re cute, some people think they shouldn’t be there. Individuals with Down’s syndrome can possess child-like characteristics, which become problematic when people treat them like so.
Matty is almost thirty, he might like to play with soft toys, but he is an adult and needs to be treated as one. We watch as Matty’s Mum, Dad and sister fret about how they need to accept this. This raises interesting and provocative issues around adulthood; it’s always hard for parents to let go of their children, they will always want to shield and protect them. This issue becomes critically important with vulnerable children. This is a brave play that asks and answers these difficult and important questions. Up Down Man illuminates Matty’s moving emotional intelligence within his family; the brilliant cast come together to celebrate the wedding anniversary with “family, friends, all together”. This is a healing, enlightening moment that demonstrates the importance of support and growth.
This is a moving play that I implore everybody to go and see. Bessell was nothing short of fabulous in his depiction of Matty. It is a brave, emotive and introspective endeavour as well as managing to be laugh-out-loud funny. Going from big belly chuckles to huge sobs rising and catching in your throat: this play surprises, informs, moves and confronts the audience. Like the cunning Mr Fox, Matty’s favourite toy, this play digs deep and exposes important food for thought.
Up Down Man runs at the Tobacco Factory until 18th November 2017, book tickets here.
Photographs by Richard Davenport.