“Please don’t google that”
Trapped inside a hospital waiting room that doesn’t even have a television in it – only a pile of battered games like Uno and Monopoly – Boyd and Jenny anxiously wait for news of his father. A veteran of Afghanistan, his son angrily tells us he’s a Crystal Palace man, the kind of man who never gets ill, but a severe seizure doesn’t lie and as Henry, his doctor, arrives to take a medical history, it becomes clear that this is a household where the health of both the body and the mind has been neglected.
For it emerges that Boyd’s dad has prostate cancer and so James Hartnell’s Beetles From The West deals with the shattering news that a diagnosis can have on those around the patient. And at its elegiac best, the play delves into the memories of all three characters and dredges up their own experiences with their fathers, reflecting on how that has shaped who they are today. Ed Locke’s striking lighting design pulls us out of Kitty Hinchcliffe’s institutional design with poetic power for these sequences and they’re very well done.
The play also ambitiously reaches for a world of other reference points – the overstretched nature of today’s NHS, the scandal of the junior doctors’ contract struggles, depression in young men, the progression of cancer itself – and here it is slightly less sure-footed. With a running time of just over an hour, there just isn’t the room to explore them all in the depth they deserve. And the initial writing of Boyd and Jenny as obnoxious types who won’t let the doctor finish a sentence and trust googled diagnoses over his own requires time for them to travel a redemptive arc.
And it is ultimately redemptive. Falling Pennies’ production reminds us that there’s no right way to respond to such news, no one way to deal with cancer. And Hartnell’s writing backs this up with the kind of hyper-real detail that is instantly recognisable – the numbing shock upon receiving bad news that sends the randomest of memories to the fore, the ease with which we slip into describing the “battle” against cancer to disguise its massive complexities, even the way in which the essential truth of your human nature is revealed through how you play board games.
Stylishly directed by Phil Croft and powerfully acted by Ryan Penny’s Boyd, who clearly prioritises muscle training over mindful thinking, Shian Denovan’s Jenny who slowly comes to realise the gravity of the situation facing the man she loves more as a father than her own, and Chris Machari’s doctor, who – one instance of overstepping boundaries aside – is sympathetically harried.