Salford Arts Theatre, Salford
One of my re-occurring fears is being injured by those bloody cyclists who rush along pavements and pedestrianised areas showing no concern for pedestrians. It is, therefore, easy to relate to Subdural Hematoma as author and sole performer Eleanor May was either struck by or dodged a cyclist, banged her head on the kerb and suffered a blood clot on the brain which resulted in a stroke that left her comatose.
Although Subdural Hematoma is autobiographical, detailing May’s recovery from her injury, it is unusual in concentrating less on the person telling the story and more on the impact her condition had upon her family. Eleanor May is that rarest of creatures: a modest actor. Throughout her monologue, she minimises the terrifying or shameful aspects of her illness—having to re-learn basic skills like communication or how to control her bowels—preferring to highlight the unceasing support from her family and friends. May uses humour to offset the truly scary developments—going over the top with wild arm movements and an exaggerated voice describing how close she came to death. The only time she shows any self-pity is when recalling minor concerns—being in a hospital ward with much older people or who, unlike her, are allowed to eat solid food.
Director Jack Victor Price sets a varied tone. The medical procedures undergone by May are recited in a sensual manner or scrawled upon her torso. May’s recovery is portrayed in mime with her struggling to communicate while wearing an expressionless mask that completely obscures her features. Parts of the monologue are delivered in blank verse with ‘amusing’ rhyming with ‘boozing’. Overall, the atmosphere is, despite the potentially depressing subject, upbeat—even a setback in May’s recovery is marked with a celebratory dance.
The most obvious feature is, however, the extensive use of pre-recorded voiceovers from May’s family or other people who have recovered from a subdural hematoma. This authentic approach captures the weariness of caring for a patient with a long-term illness but is not particularly dramatic. Theatre, by its nature, is fake—events are exaggerated, and actors use their vocal skills to provoke an emotional reaction in the audience. The speakers in Subdural Hematoma are untrained so the potential of the speeches to be moving is not fully realised. Although May sometimes interacts with the recordings, commenting or giving explanatory insights, in some cases she simply listens; standing immobile onstage, which is not visually engaging.
Subdural Hematoma is a sincere tribute to the people who helped Eleanor May recuperate from a terrifying illness and inspiring in showing how well she has recovered yet not as dramatically satisfying as might have been hoped.
Reviewer: David Cunningham