On the surface, Jim Cartwright’s Bed may seem to be laden with darkly layered themes; the oppression of insomnia, the fears of death and loneliness and the inevitable fate of growing old. However, director James McAndrew cast a heart-warming glow on the play’s more ominous topics all tucked up in a weirdly wonderful surrealist bed – and I mean this quite literally.
The play follows the lives of seven elderly men and women, mostly unnamed, who all reside in a bed together. They are watched over by the hateful and envious Sermon Head (Nick Jeffrey) who embodies insomnia and its restless malevolence.
Once again, the New Theatre is transformed into another enchanting set, as designed by Jess Courtney and Grace Lowe. Naturally, the vast bed spreads itself across most of the stage; a seeming sea of blankets, tangled legs and wild faces. But all is not as it seems: hidden trapdoors within the structure worked beautifully in McAndrew’s interpretation – providing not only comic effect for Sermon to poke his head out from but both hiding and revealing the characters long-lost wishes and desires in a moving silent scene. Around the mammoth bed was an oversized chests of drawers used as a staircase and a suspended window to the outside world; never to be seen out of due to the blinding from light behind it.
The cast were far from being bed-bound however; a surging energy ran through them while they used the bed as a raised stage, dancing and careering around it in a demented yet loving fashion. We see into their world when they all gather and stare out to the audience – no line is lost. Great effort was taken into the characters’ unique idiosyncrasies, which set them apart from the stereotypes one may expect to see when ‘playing an old person’; the mannerisms used by the cast create real, believable people.
Attachments to each character were made possible by their believability, alongside their individual monologues, which were spread out within the play’s action. These personal insights into the characters past lives were grasped whole-heartedly by the audience, especially Marjorie’s (Ellie Cawthorne) stammering retelling of her personal tragedy. The gruelling role of Sermon Head was wonderfully undertaken. Avoiding coming off too slapstick, Jeffrey carefully uses his small subtle growls, sighs and penetrative stares to get the laughs. He speedily spews out the lavish dialogue fuelled by the vented frustration one often feels when they simply cannot sleep .
Unfortunately, the changes of dynamics were quite jolty in their transitions – constant blackouts tracked the play’s action, separating the audience from the beautiful world only to cast us out again. The rest of the lighting design from Lawrence Bolton was cleverly adapted to specific sections of the script with obvious attention paid to it. The spotlight behind the window was used to the upmost effect, with its slow dimming in and out at the start of the play to create the magical surreal atmosphere.
Cartwright’s play has been in need of recuperation and this production has given it the recognition it deserves. Refreshingly, alongside producer Nick Stevenson, McAndrew did not let the surrealism throw the play into a bizarre world with no relation to the characters. Instead, a unique strong connection between audience and play was created; from the everlasting love of Man (Jono Lake) and Woman (Amy Brough-Aikin) to the play’s heart-warming conclusion. This connection of hope alongside all the other darker themes bound affection to the performance – even if it only is a hope we find in our dreams.