You cannot recover from anxiety by just staying calm. You cannot recover from depression by just being positive… If mental illnesses were that simple, we wouldn’t be struggling in the first place. – London Underground Thought of the Day
Opening scene. A lone man sits in the dark recalling the events that led to his inauspicious birth. Steeped in pain for years, he drinks to assauge his ‘demons’ – an ironic state of affairs as he, like many in Ireland over the last century, had been ill-treated by the religious orders when he was growing up. From a pit of despair, this broken man imparts his ‘benediction’ to the world and one person in particular. It isn’t dying that scares him, it’s living the way he has, in perpetuity. Watching him, I thought: “My God. That’s an Offie-worthy performance right there..!” Written by Rachel Tookey and directed by Thomas Martin, Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem is an unflinching examination of mental health in three generations of one family.
Unlike Alice Birch’s play Anatomy of a Suicide which looks at the presence of trauma in a mother, grandmother and granddaughter simultaneously, Tookey’s play unpicks the layers of history between Eamon (Daragh O’Malley), his daughter Sarah (Madeleine Bowyer) and her son Ben (Daniel Rainford). If Eamon’s raw emotional state permeates the play, Sarah (play by Madeleine Bowyer) is its calm centre, who has had to think about ‘the bigger picture’ for as long as she can remember.
Even when Eamon isn’t physically around, he’s very much in Sarah’s every thought, which Ben picks up on. But while her attentiveness to her son is subliminally an indirect response to the void in her life, the observant will note the tell-tale signs of her son’s fragility. For those with eyes to see, Ben’s initial fear of failing in his endeavours is replaced with the dread of life’s compounding pressures and their perpetuity.
But Sarah’s ‘blindspot’ doesn’t stem from a lack of caring. The play shows that the estrangement between Sarah and Eamon occurred because she was trying to protect her son in the long run from her father’s oscillating temperament. And while ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandson’ are cut from the same cloth with their own private ‘battles’, in Sarah we see her own fight with trying to keep her sanity and lead a ‘normal’ life. A lifetime caring for someone with deep-rooted issues has to take its toll on one’s mental health, albeit in a different way.
Other renowned playwrights such as Sarah Kane have broached the subject of depression and what it’s like to live under the auspices of this frame of mind. Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem accomplishes the same feat, but manages to also convey the limits of words and actions, from without and within – making us care about what everyone is respectively going through.
© Michael Davis 2019
Bromley Bedlam Bethlehem runs at Old Red Lion Theatre until 25th May.