There is much to admire in this personal story which traces the performer’s journey from debilitating illness through to recovery.
Adam Pownall fell ill with Guillain-Barré syndrome (or locked in syndrome) back in 2009. The symptoms of the condition developed very quickly, and he moved from being an athletic 26-year-old actor to a hospital patient, wheelchair-bound and dependent on round-the-clock care.
Fortunately, we know from the beginning that this story has a happy ending as Pownall’s story takes us to some dark places, giving us detailed descriptions of symptoms, procedures and levels of pain that Pownall experiences. The show uses movement, music and an anatomical set (designed by Kate Unwin) to help the audience comprehend how it feels to lose sensation and mobility.
Pownall is joined by only one other actor, Kitty Randle, who multi-roles as medical staff and family members, but her main role is to portray Pownall’s immune system – the thing which is attacking his nervous system. It’s a difficult role, but Randle assumes an imp-like character; at times fiendish, at times ingenuous and oblivious to the damage she is causing. The physical theatre feels a little dated, but it is effective in communicating the decline of Pownall’s body, with the duo using dance to show how Pownall is losing strength against the aggressive response of his immune system. In one visually pleasing scene the pair weave ribbons around the set, creating a clear image of his nervous system and its gradual weakening.
Nick Wood’s script is carefully constructed using extracts from the many interviews he carried out as part of his research. Through a combination of recordings and verbatim theatre, we hear snippets of how his family reacted and supported him over the months of his recovery. Indeed, at times it feels as though the narrative is restricted in focusing entirely on Pownall. There are so many other voices in this story; family, friends, medical staff, other patients. The wealth of Wood’s research material would have allowed the play to expand it’s focus to other characters, which might have added a layer of complexity to the narrative.
The simplicity of the narrative works well to keep the focus on Guillain-Barré syndrome, and in doing so raises awareness of this condition and the charities who support those who are recovering from its effects. Any misgivings about its structure are brushed aside in the presence of Pownall who brings lightness and comedy to the piece; slipping out of role to make wry, self-aware comments about his journey. He is clearly a wonderful human being, and his winning personality is what carries the play.
While the form of this piece feels slightly dated, the intention behind this production is worthy of a night out at the theatre.
Getting Better Slowly was review at New Diorama Theatre. It is now on tour until February 2017. Details can be found at: @GBSproject | #gettingbetterslowly | www.gettingbetterslowly.com