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A Sunny Disposition

Nicola Reynolds
The Other Room
Porters, Cardiff

Neal McWilliams Credit: Aenne Pallasca
Neal McWilliams Credit: Aenne Pallasca

A Sunny Disposition comes as a late addition to the Insomnia season at The Other Room. First presented as a scratch performance there last autumn, it is the debut play from actress Nicola Reynolds (Ideal, The Story Of Tracy Beaker), fresh from her turn in the extended run of Constellation Street in the same venue.

As we enter the space, we notice that Amy Jane Cook’s set is simpler than we're used to from this company. The actor is waiting, pensive, seemingly boxed into the corner of a pub, with the walls and carpet identically patterned. We know from pre-publicity that this is a play with addiction as its theme, and that it is inspired by the author's own experiences.

Neal McWillams's aptly named Charlie addresses us directly, describing himself as a people-pleaser, and attributing this, at least in part, to a childhood spent trying to keep his unhappy father from hitting him. He presents as cheery and ebullient, bantering with audience members. Dressed smart-casual, lucid, youthful, and sharp-witted, he makes a joke of the fact that he does not look like the typical, shabby street-drinker.

It is not long, however, before the horror of Charlie’s situation is made clear. The archetypical party animal, he has managed to keep himself in employment, and therefore solvent, for several years and has become a loving partner and father, whilst continuing to ingest huge quantities of alcohol and cocaine, becoming an entertaining fixture of central Cardiff’s night-life. But, even before he has begun to spin his tale, it is clear that something catastrophic has happened...

Under Reynolds’s direction, McWilliams gives a winningly physical performance, instantly believable as the over-loud Irish charmer in the corner of the bar, a man who constantly manages to be forgiven for his misdemeanours. The self-pity is concealed beneath factual observations (for example, alcoholism being viewed as a disease in the US, but a disgrace in the UK), and his self-delusion is subtly signalled, such as when he characterises a bottle of wine in the evening or a couple of beers on a December morning as having his drinking “under control”.

Like most effective one-person plays, A Sunny Disposition focuses on narrative rather than reflection—although Charlie’s digressions are both amusing and informative. They merely serve, though, to delay the inevitable laying bare of a life which has fallen apart, causing much collateral damage.

Matthew Jones’s sound design takes us, variously, to dark or celebratory places; Jane Lalljee’s lighting points up Charlie’s well-disguised desperation. As the piece ends, after a bracing forty minutes or so, we are left almost as shattered as our protagonist.

This is a story that has been told before, and will be again. Nevertheless, Reynolds’s heartfelt and well-crafted script and McWilliams's knowingly appealing performance make A Sunny Disposition well worth catching.

And I’m sure there wasn’t as much of a post-show stampede to the bar as usual.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith