Originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers
Matty is 19. He likes Michael Jackson, playing football, singing, dancing, wearing capes and Yoda. Matty owns a lightsaber. His bedroom is both orderly and chaotic – a playful grotto brimming over with stuffed animals. Often projected on its walls are the animated thoughts, cartoon memories and fantastic imaginings of his mind.
But today, Matty is leaving for college. His mum is helping him pack. It’s time for Matty to grow up and he can’t take everything with him. Matty’s mum wants more for him, a better future. Matty is going a to college to learn to be independent because his mum can’t always be there. It’s just she’s not sure how she will cope without him.
Matty has Down Syndrome, and ‘Up Down Boy’ is a funny and moving story about two everyday superheroes, a mother and son at a crossroads and a suitcase full of stuffed toys.
Written by Sue Shields about her real life son performer Nathan Bessell (who plays Matty) with dramaturgical support from Catherine Johnson, ‘Up Down Boy’ combines drama, music, dance and animation to reveal the highs and lows of the shared parent/teenager experience of living with Down Syndrome. In addition to the complexities of Matty and his mothers relationship (a strong performance by Heather Williams) ‘Up Down Boy’ also touches on issues of social exclusion, inequality and experiences of social care, education and other challenges that the pair have had to navigate.
It’s this honouring of the shared experience where the work really shines. Whilst Matty figures predominantly in the production most of the dialogue is spoken by his mother and it’s the focus on her parental journey/struggle which makes this work so unique. We hear of their story from Matty’s birth, their joys and despairs and witness the truthful and colourful spectrum of emotions that the pair experience – ranging from quiet intimate moments tinged with joy, sadness and playfulness to resentment, raised voices and frustration. Beneath this the pair have both successfully created a convincing dynamic which continually suggests and communicates a foundation of sincere love. Matty’s experience is more often communicated through some astoundingly good movement pieces, joyful comedic moments and animated journeys into imagined jungles.
Matty is not just someone with Downs Syndrome he is a brother and a son situated within a family context – whilst this did not feature heavily in the current script this is an interesting consideration and something of which I’ve seen little of in similar productions. However the significance and richness of the mothers story, her dichotomy between strength and vulnerability, hope and regret offers much to it’s audience and there were several nods of empathy and understanding amongst the crowd. ‘Up Down Boy’ is a production that has something important to say and says it well. It reveals a rarely told story. It is a production that matters and a promising debut from writer Sue Shields.
‘Up Down Boy’ by Myrtle Theatre Company is showing at The Brewery Theatre until Saturday 26th October.