Some theatre pieces take a while to reveal what they are going to be about; some get straight to the point. “I’m an actor, aged 28, diagnosed with incurable brain cancer”. These might not be quite the very first words spoken in The Glad Game, but they make a significant impact early on in this powerful and unsentimentalised account of how one person has refused to let a condition either define or dominate their life. This is a riveting 70 minute confessional play from Phoebe Frances Brown (though the middle initial soon comes to stand for something else entirely) an actor who has appeared at the National and the Donmar and is one third of comedy trio Major Labia. It’s an honest, frank account of discovering, living with and surviving a terrible condition which asks for empathy not sympathy and from which the viewer will almost certainly emerge uplifted.
The title is taken from the Disney film Pollyanna, the heroine of which is prone to another incurable condition – optimism. When she is down she examines her life and finds reasons to be positive. Brown identifies with the fictional character though, at first, has to struggle rather more to see the up side as the condition causes physical and mental deterioration. Perhaps the worst aspect is when it affects speech and powers of memory; for a committed actor could fate be any more cruel? But with the help of a loving family and the support of her friendship network she finds her way through to a level of acceptance of the situation that I’m not sure I would manage. The condition isn’t defeated (it can’t be) but it is at least tamed.
Brown has been performing the show live at Nottingham Playhouse recently and has released this recorded version for those unable to engage directly. Quite apart from the compelling subject matter, this film has been intelligently constructed and makes full use of various aspects of the venue to bring the story to life. There are scenes shot in the backstage areas, the dressing rooms, the corridors and so on and at one stage the raked auditorium becomes Padley Gorge in the Peak District. Using the milieu of the theatre emphasises that Brown’s desire to be an actor trumps everything else – even a Stage 3 Astrocytoma. There’s some superb cinematography from Dan Patrick Hipkin and Oliver Bury which together with the evocative sound design from Iain Armstrong wonderfully conjures up the various locations. Extensive use of voice overs from other actors (Haydn Gwynne and Sarah Hadland among others) and some of the real life people involved (friends and family) adds further depth and texture as do some poignant videos of Brown as a young girl.
Much of the show is set against the background of being cast in Rufus Norris’ production of Small Island at the National where Brown is due to be in the ensemble but also act as understudy to one of the key female characters. Her disappointment in having to step down for a while is balanced by her eventual triumphant return to the role and it is easy for us to celebrate alongside her. It would have been relatively simple to make a rather schmaltzy piece of theatre which went for tugging at the heartstrings as the default position. The fact that writer/performer Brown and directors Tessa Walker and Adam Kes Hipkin have constructed something far more nuanced, and which is at times laugh aloud funny, is far more effective at getting its message of fortitude and hope across. One can only admire Brown’s resilience and pray that on finding oneself in such a situation that we too could play the glad game. The actor’s desire to make her mark is triumphantly realised – do yourself a favour, watch this and rejoice.
Production photos (taken from the live version of the show) are by Graeme Braidwood
The Glad Game is available via the Nottingham Playhouse website – click here
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