Up Down Boy

Sue Shields
Myrtle Theatre Company
the egg, Theatre Royal Bath

Nathan Bessell as Matty and Heather Williams as Odette Credit: Myrtle Theatre Company
Nathan Bessell as Matty and Heather Williams as Odette Credit: Myrtle Theatre Company

Sue Shields had given no real thought to becoming a playwright until persuaded to do so by her friends at Bristol-based Myrtle Theatre Company. They had seen the spark of an idea in Sue’s amusingly dry observations about life with her teenaged son, Nathan.

Nathan has many siblings, a fast wit and Down syndrome. Shields’s experiences inspired the story of Matty, played by Nathan Bessell. Matty is a young man with Down syndrome who is preparing to leave home for the first time to attend a residential college.

The production makes effective use of multimedia, with a series of animations playing out at the back of the stage which bring to life Matty’s rich imagination. The animated sequences also poignantly drive home just how much can be missed by a doting mother (Heather Williams) who does far too much of the talking for her learning-disabled son. It is a highly effective device which reaches out to an inclusive audience and provides some great comic moments.

What becomes clear is that while his mother carries the burden of worry about how her son will deal with the practicalities of independent life, Matty’s inner world is a rich and magical one, full of creativity and imagination. This is demonstrated beautifully by Bessell’s captivating solo dance sequences, all performed with grace, poise and humour.

We are left with the feeling that Matty’s future will without doubt prove to be the adventure every parent wishes for their child, even though this may be a fact as yet lost to his worry-worn mother on the eve of her son’s flight from the nest. He is certainly a young man ready to fly and feels little of her stress, comfortable in the knowledge that he is surrounded by a large and loving family. “You have been tied to my apron strings far too long and now it’s time to let go”, Odette says, as much to herself as to Matty.

Where Sheilds’s text shines is in its illustration of just how enriched her life has been by her son. In spite of the memories of the worries with which Odette regales him, (the pain of diagnosis, the many times he has run off, ended up in casualty or given them all a fright), she also takes time to tell him, “You make my life sparkle…You’re the diamond in my life”. And set against the context of this play, the truth of the sentiment is abundantly clear.

Ultimately, Matty interrupts his mother’s constant narrative, tells her to calm down and reminds her that, no matter what her fears, dreams and aspirations are for her son, there is one immovable detail she cannot overlook: “My choice”.

Reviewer: Allison Vale