BWW Review: FADING INTO NOTHINGNESS, Merlin Theatre, Sheffield
Fading Into Nothingness, experiencing a limited debut run at Sheffield's Merlin Theatre, showcases the theatre's collaboration with Freeman College, a local FE college for students with learning difficulties and complex needs (both organisations are part of the Ruskin Mill Trust).
This professional production features local performers and is written by a graduate of Freeman College, 20-year-old Theo Griffiths. He also stars as Zack, whose experiences with autism are partly based on Griffiths' own.
It is an exploration of grief and its impact on an ordinary family, whilst also touching on issues of autism, mental health, bullying, poverty and power.
The core storyline features a family of four whose lives become thrown into chaos when mum Rachel (Michaela Short) is diagnosed with cancer. We see the responses of each family member to the news: Rachel's raging against the disease and her fears for her children; her husband (Matt Medlock) struggling to adapt to the change in family dynamics; teenage son Zack having to cope with this new reality that throws the familiar routines he needs into chaos; and oldest daughter Mia (Danielle Victoria), who is on the threshold of adulthood and being forced to take on responsibilities she didn't ask for.
Alongside the family scenes, and their interactions with doctors, counsellors and other professionals, we see Zack's school life, where he's bullied by a group of three other kids and misunderstood by his stressed-out teacher (Julia Bisby). We also follow the bullies outside of class and learn that Natalie (Agnetha Spencer) is experiencing huge struggles of her own, and her two friends are doing their best to support her.
The play deals with very heavy themes. In a Q&A session after the show, Griffiths said his key aim was to explore people's experiences of pain and this comes through clearly. From the cancer patient snapping that no one talks about how rough it is to be the person going through the illness and its effects, to the bereaved daughter howling on her knees in grief, to the 'tough' girl at school masking the neglect she's experiencing at home through joking and acting up, we see the ways different people respond to grief and hardship.
The darker moments are punctuated with a lot of lighter ones. My favourites were the scenes with the teenagers - their dialogue felt very fresh and authentic with some really funny observational lines (a joke about a bag was a highlight), in a way that only a writer and actors who are just out of their teens themselves can make work.
I was less keen on a scene with a comedy vicar that had one or two good observations, but was over-egged in a way that seemed juvenile compared to a lot of the more mature writing elsewhere. But Griffiths is a young, new writer, who will no doubt become more adept at honing his craft over time. Likewise, there was perhaps a little too much thrown at us in terms of the hardships experienced by different characters - though they would still pale in comparison to your average Shakespeare tragedy!
Another key aim of the show is to represent autism beyond the stereotypes and without making it a 'problem' that needs to be solved. Here, Zack's autism is presented as part of ordinary life, and whilst some of its difficulties are highlighted (bullying at school, not being understood by a teacher, the meltdowns that can occur when routines are disrupted), it is always in a way that feels authentic, rather than patronising.
Zack is not the centre of the play's attention, but is one of several members of the ensemble cast who takes a lead, and it is a real strength of the show that no one character's 'issue' or experience is seen as more important than the rest.
The cast are all excellent, with strong direction from Sarah Spencer, and some neatly effective scene changes. The scenes are not always in chronological order, and at times a little more signposting would have helped the audience, but the different settings are effectively realised through creative reuse of furniture.
This is a very limited run, although the team are exploring the possibility of touring it. It's a great ensemble piece, and Theo Griffiths is a real talent - both as a performer and writer. Whilst the show isn't perfect, it is well realised for a debut, and it highlights the potential of local theatre and collaborative working. It brought the audience to tears and also made them laugh uproariously, and is well worth a look if you're in the Sheffield area this weekend.
Fading into Nothingness is at the Merlin Theatre, Sheffield, until 19 January.