The Almond and the Seahorse

Kaite O' Reilly
Sherman Cymru, Cardiff, and touring
(2008)

The Sherman Cymru launches its first season with a bold and affecting new production by playwright Katie O'Reilly. The Almond and the Seahorse is a compelling and emotionally charged look at the impact of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on sufferers and their relatives.

O' Reilly passionately believes in the need to stage issues of disability in mainstream theatre. Her award-winning work with the disabled-led theatre company, Graeae, also stands testimony to this passion. But this play goes far beyond simply providing a platform for the playwright's political agenda: this is a powerful drama, beautifully written, which says as much about the universal themes of life, love, death and devotion as it does about disability.

Tom and Gwennan have been married for over twenty years, but a car accident left Gwennan 'frozen' at the age of twenty-nine. Tom (Ian Saynor) is an almost broken man, turned inside out by the heart-ache of living with the woman he loves, who can no longer recognise him. Olwen Rees as Gwennan has a disconnected, other-worldly quality; in the midst of the fog that has descended on her, there are moments where Rees is painfully lucid, with an agonising self-awareness.

Sarah (Nia Gwynne) and Joe (Celyn Jones) are twenty years younger than Tom and Gwennan. Following surgery to remove a brain tumour, Joe was left with significant short term memory loss, able to engage in articulate conversation but unaware of his condition. As Sarah puts it, "The lights are on but someone else is home".

Celyn Jones brings humour to the tragedy of his situation. Nia Gwynne stands firm against the mounting pressures of life with the husband she loves; or rather without the husband she loves.

"You're not bitter and twisted and cynical, dark in the soul in the way you used to be. And I loved that. It wasn't always comfortable, but I knew I was alive."

Mojisola Adebayo plays Dr Farmer, a neuropsychologist who, it emerges, has demons of her own which have driven her to devote her life to TBI. Adebayo gives a complex performance as a well-meaning physician, unable to empathise with the relatives of her patients, scarred by her experience of her father's memory loss.

Phillip Zarilli's insightful direction ensures that the performances have absolute authenticity. But the real triumph of this play is that O' Reilly isn't only concerned with the lives of the carers, and then with disabled caricatures. All of her characters are complex, isolated and endearing individuals; two of them happen also to be disabled. There is no room for tokenism.

"The Almond and the Seahorse" runs at the Sherman Cymru until March 15th, then tours to Brecon, Mold, Aberystwyth, and the Contact Theatre, Manchester.

Allison Vale