The Playhouse Studio, that tiny little venue at the top of the building, will get a reputation as formidable as any big dipper in the country. First The Swallowing Dark, then The Match Box and now Held, from Young Everyman & Playhouse graduate Joe Ward Munrow; all test the audience’s mettle.

These homegrown productions celebrating new material and talent are doing the theatre proud – but they’re not always easy to watch. Held concerns itself with dementia, identity, memory, family and more; pondering the quality of life we bestow – or inflict – on our infirm relatives.

Clearly a lot of thought has gone into the design and production here from a team of Liverpool alumni. The crackles that punctuate the modern scenes and those from the past are like synapses firing; each flash of light and audio effect heralds a change of scenery and time.

When Pauline Daniels is portraying Mary in flashbacks she’s animated and a little overwrought; but when time fast forwards to the modern day and a care home, her two overwhelmed sons sniping at one another in the background, old now and suffering from dementia, it’s as if her strings have been cut.

The way the stage is set out, as a long strip between two rows of seats, plunges the audience right into the middle of the action and, like The Matchbox, sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing. Physically fracturing the set, placing the chairs that sons Ged McKenna’s David and Alan Stocks’ Simon sit on at several yards apart, further and further from their Mum, serves to emphasise their dislocation, their isolation.

And Mary’s sepulchral throne, growing organically into the ceiling and spreading across the set, growing thinner as it does, seems to force home the point too: family ties; a failing synaptic web; seaweed? A scene where Mary frantically rearranges the furniture while her sons patiently, quietly return them to their rightful places, is beautifully judged.

Similarly the dialogue comes to the audience a little at a time, so we hear Simon responding to lines delivered by Mary later in the play and – in an unforgettable climax that many will find dazzling, baffling and entirely fitting – we hear all three simultaneously attempt to articulate their feelings, as if in broken, crossed snatches of telephone communication; a chaotic and fevered round.

At times, however, the narrative tics serve to distract from the performances. And while the actors all acquit themselves, the working behind it is occasionally visible, particularly in scenes where the cast refer to the audience for no obvious reason.

The dialogue between McKenna and Stocks sings, veering easily between banality, pathos and humour. Stocks, the Playhouse’s go-to hangdog, is perfect as the bemused, world-weary Simon and McKenna the everyman shouldering his grief – but there was a suspicion they were a little over-directed.

Daniels, sparrow-like as the dementia-ravaged Mary, turning inquisitively to make sense of her surroundings one minute and striding around the stage in her younger incarnation the next, is strong too but has comparatively little to do.

Despite its theatrical excesses, Held works best when allowing its cast to simply talk to one another. The dialogue of newcomer Munrow frequently sparkles; the directorial flourishes of Lorne Campbell are often inspired and the production design innovative. That the whole isn’t always the sum of its parts is a shame, but Held has flashes of brilliance and is another strong Studio-bound production to pummel the emotions.

Held
Playhouse Studio
Until 1 December

Images by Christian Smith