Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. It’s a sobering fact to be presented with at the start of Alex McSweeney’s exceptional new drama, Distance, which opened at London’s Park Theatre on Friday night.
But, after watching this disturbing, moving and thought-provoking play, about a man on the edge, I went home feeling sad and guilty that we, as a society, pay so little attention to male mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day which makes this inventive and engrossing drama even more pertinent.
It was written by McSweeney as a response to him losing five male friends through suicide in just five years.
He wanted to understand what drove them to it. The chaos and darkness that became so overwhelming to them that they felt they had no option but to end it all.
If this sounds too depressing to be made into a stage play, you’d be wrong. Distance is troubling and dark but also peppered with comedy and super, well-observed characters who dwell on the periphery of our mainstream lives.
Male suicide has been getting an increasing amount of publicity lately – and rightly so. Traditionally it has always been assumed that men are reliable, dependable, resilient.
Guys don’t talk about their feelings and fears. It’s not British and it’s not manly. They’ve been raised to internalise, be phlegmatic, keep their worries to themselves.
When a relationship breaks down it’s the woman who gets the sympathy and emotional support, no matter who is to blame. Women wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’ll cry and scream. Men suffer in silence.
Recently, on TV, Coronation Street dealt with the subject with understanding and sensitivity and McSweeney’s well observed Distance is equally powerful and compelling.
We meet Adam Burton’s Steven, trapped in a nightmare of his own making, contemplating the unthinkable, completely powerless to prevent it, flying, falling and lost.
The story is told in flashback and we see him on a train. Steven is on his way to Manchester for a job interview but he’s agitated, troubled by inner demons that are plaguing him.
Suddenly an old friend turns up. Amazingly the jovial Alan (Abdul Salis) is up for the same job. The pair haven’t seen each other for years so there’s the usual catch-up about lives, marriages, careers etc.
It’s like pulling teeth with Steven reluctant to admit that he’s struggling. Eventually he reveals that his marriage has collapsed and, over the course of the journey we see the mind of a troubled soul laid bare in the most visceral way.
Director Simon Pittman has created a visually dynamic production using clever video projections that presents the audience not only with Steven but also his tortured inner psyche.
It’s brilliantly imagined and quite troubling to watch at times. Thankfully we have Richard Corgan’s superbly idiosyncratic urban cowboy, The Duke, to provide the light relief in this dark tale.
Steven looks on enviously as this offbeat, affable Welshman talks about his life as a free spirit, dodging train fares, cadging cash, drifting around the country, strumming his guitar and with not a care in the world.
He makes a couple of appearances in this 90 minute tale and its a real godsend with very funny dialogue, a momentary change of pace and Corgan giving a hilarious and scintillating performance.
McSweeney uses stream of consciousness as a narrative technique allowing the audience to see Steven’s physical disintegration and the thought processes that are tormenting him.
Adam Burton gives an outstanding turn as the distressed Steven, giving a very physical, intense and harrowing performance as a man unable to cope with the breakdown of his marriage and descent into depression.
Watching him in pain is shocking. We see him terrify and intimidate a visiting Jehovah’s Witness (Doreen Blackstock), frightening his unseen young son, alienating his estranged wife (Lindsay Fraser) and sink into oblivion with bottles of booze.
So, on World Suicide Prevention Day, give a thought to male mental health. Get the men in your life to talk about their feelings and emotions and, if they need it, there are an increasing number of mental health support groups only to happy to help.
At the very least, go and see Distance and, remember, it’s good to talk.
Distance runs in the Park90 theatre until September 29.
Alex McSweeney has written a harrowing and compelling story about one man’s descent into depression and beyond. It’s visceral, powerfully told and superbly played by Adam Burton.