It’s been 17 years since actor Greg Wise last stepped on a London stage and it’s scandalous that his return has taken so long.
What has tempted him back is Brad Fraser’s compelling family drama, Kill Me Now, which opened tonight at Finsbury’s Park Theatre.
The programme describes it as a black comedy but that’s something of a misnomer. Yes, it’s funny and brutal and honest. But it is also moving, deeply emotional, and ultimately harrowing. At the final scene there were quite a few in the audience trying to control their sobs.
Fraser isn’t shy at tackling the hugely emotive subject of disability but he also throws in some heavyweight bombshells like mercy-killing, council cutbacks, the importance of family and the quality state-funded care.
I’m not sure why he decided to set the play in America, as it could have worked equally well as English, but the cast have a firm grip of their accents.
There are elements of a Greek Tragedy here. Once upon a time Jake Sturdy, a thrusting new writer with a perfect wife, produced his first novel about what it was like to be an expectant father, awaiting the birth of their perfect little boy.
But Joey was born profoundly disabled and his arrival was later followed by the death, in a car accident, of his wife and daughter.
Jake had to give up writing, his career was put on the back burner and he had to dedicate his life to caring for his son. His only nod to normality was a once-a-week sex session with a married woman, one of his former students.
The play opens with Jake tenderly lowering 17-year-old Joey into the bath.
The teen is a mass of emotions. His body is twisted and out of control while his mind screams in anger, frustration and despair.
“I’m so UGLY!” he cries. “I want to be like normal people!”.
He’s just like every other teenager. He wants sex, to be able to play video games, to go out with friends.
The only person of his own age who spends time with him is the “slightly brain-damaged” Rowdy who looks beyond the disabilities and sees a boy.
Life is spluttering along, week by week, until fate throws a curveball that no-one could foresee and things gets unbearably harder.
Wise encapsulates the concerned, loving, over-protective father. He does everything for his son, even some pretty unmentionable specialised care that goes above and beyond the remit of a dad.
He plays the part with utter conviction which makes what happens to him even more difficult to bear. Suffering is etched in his face and there’s pain in those deep brown eyes.
Oliver Gomm’s performance as Joey is nothing short of remarkable and deserves any number of awards. It’s astonishing (and must be exhausting for the young actor).
He spends the entire 100-minute performance being hoisted into a mobility scooter or, naked, into a bath. His limbs are jerky and unresponsive, his speech slurred and occasionally difficult to understand, and his body bent at angles.
When he speaks the words come in bursts as he tries to get across the anger he feels. Joey is a mass of hormones with no way of releasing his pent-up emotions.
There are moments of bleakness but then a throwaway comment, four letter word or “sharkasm” by Joey or Rowdy (a beautifully measured and confidently played by Jack McMullen) breaks the gloom.
Each scene is incredibly brief. For a long time Jake seems to be forever changing down to his underpants or climbing into his sweats as “playing hockey” becomes a euphemism for sex with the lovely Robyn (Anna Wilson-Jones).
Jake’s much younger sister, Twyla (Charlotte Harwood), offers support to the family but every character (even the exuberant, constantly lusty Rowdy) is exhausted with the effort it takes to care for Joey.
This well-crafted play has been sensitively directed by Braham Murray who never lets sentimentality get the better of him. There are some brilliantly funny moments amid scenes of heartache and suffering.
Now I’m going off to have a little sob to myself..
Kill Me Now runs at the Park Theatre until March 29. Unmissable.