One-woman show Lost in Blue, the gripping story of a man in a coma as told by the daughter who helped to put him there, comes to London’s Lion & Unicorn Theatre from 15 to 26 February 2022. In the first of our two-part interview, we talk to writer and performer Debs Newbold about the piece’s genesis, her relationship with director John Wright and the power of sound. Time to get booking!
Through the prism of Vincent van Gogh’s famous late work, Bedroom in Arles, Debs explores the phenomenon of living life in a coma, issues around end of life, and the healing power of art.
Annie is amazing at art. When she was three years old, her life was skewed off-course. On her 18th birthday, it threatens to happen again.
Where do people go when they are in a coma? What happens when a family disagrees about how long to let a loved one hold on? What would van Gogh say about loss if you hung out with him in his room at Arles? And what do pigeons have to do with it?
Lost in Blue is written and performed by Debs Newbold and directed by John Wright, with sound design is by Kieran Lucas.
What was your initial process for creating this piece?
Well, the piece is about a young woman, Annie, who wants to be a painter. Her mother is skint and trying to hold life together practically and her dad, who was an artist from a wealthy family is in a coma, where he has been for many years.
It might seem strange, but the initial idea for that scenario came when I lost my nan, who I was very close to. She was a storyteller, if only to people at the pub and her family, but she was a master at it and very funny. Her death affected me a lot; I actually lost my voice for six weeks after she passed away.
“Hearing the recorded voice of a loved one who has died is as near to an encounter with a ghost as I can imagine”
One day, a couple of years after she died, I was looking in a cellar for something and I found a very old recording of her voice on minidisc (remember those?). It was the only recording of her voice that any of us had. After dithering for a bit, I managed to play it, and it knocked me for six.
Hearing the recorded voice of a loved one who has died is as near to an encounter with a ghost as I can imagine. The voice is a physical thing, so the sound of it felt like such a strong echo of her physical presence. An afterburn. I began to think about how a person can feel so present but be so utterly absent at the same time. I suddenly got an image of a man in a coma. I saw him and I saw his daughter, like a painting. He lying on a bed, she looking out of a window, waiting. And another woman was there too, unable to speak. So that’s where it began, really.
Tell us about your relationship with director John Wright.
Of the nine shows I have made, three of them have been made in collaboration with John. I love working with him. We share a sense of humour and a love of subversion. We diverge on lots of things, too though, which is also good. It is a very good creative relationship.
In our work, his main role – and I think he would say this – is not so much as a director (although he does that too) as it is a provocateur. He will provoke me during the devising process with questions or requests to see a character do something or have a scene that makes the audience see or feel a certain way, and I will come up with ideas in response. The story then suggests itself from there, and I will go away and write a bit of it and come back the next day to try and push it further with him. He is like a sparring partner.
He is also my first audience member in the sense that I will be essentially making it up right there in front of him. Huge sections of a story, scenes and plot twists, will get written on the spot that way. The stuff you discover in the room is always the most fruitful. Having someone to tell you if it flops or if it is actually working is vital, and John has an amazing ability to keep the work going even when it gets muddy, and I feel like I am hacking through thicket with a butter knife.
“His main role is not so much as a director as it is a provocateur”
I got to work with John because of my friend, an actor called Terry Frisch. I was making a show with the musician Laurel Swift, and I was in the pub with Terry bemoaning mine and Laurel’s need for a good director to help us shape what we had. Terry said, “who would be the dream person to work on it?” and I said, without hesitation, John Wright.
I was a big fan of Trestle and Told by an Idiot – two amazing theatre companies – and John had been a founding member and director of both. Plus, when I was training at Goldsmith’s, we did a huge amount of inspiring work in mask and in clowning, and John’s name kept coming up as an expert and innovator in the use of these techniques. I had read his book Why Is That So Funny, which is a classic text, really, and I’d seen his work and loved it.
Anyway, Terry basically dared me to get in touch with John and, if you please, gave me his number to boot! I would never have had the brass neck without Terry daring me to do it. Twelve years later, I cannot believe how much I have learned about devising, clowning, acting and narrative theory from John. All while messing about. Brilliant.
What part does sound play in Lost in Blue?
Sound is a powerful tool to use, especially when you are working without visual clues, like sets and costumes. When I am storytelling, I am trying to paint pictures in the heads of the audience. In fact, one of the best compliments I received for my work was when someone said “wow, I feel like I just saw an entire film in my head”. Lots of people say versions of this after my shows and I love the comparison with film, because in these longer stories I am kind of using lots of filmic devices; dissolves, jump cuts, close-ups.
Sound really helps. First, because it is like a film score, helping people navigate the emotional map of the story, but also because it can transport the audience from one place, or mood, or room, or scene, to another with an immediacy and clarity that does away with hundreds of words of description.
“The show has over a hundred sound cues in it, some tiny and some big”
I recently discovered that even just playing with the volume of the sounds can give the effect of a close-up or a wide shot in a scene I am describing.
I often work with live musicians in my shows, but this time I wanted to make the sounds myself. I am not a musician, so I had to find another way. Chris Branch from Brains & Hunch was the one who suggested the Loop station. It’s great because it offers the audience two things really: the sounds themselves and the business of me making them. Both those things can be used to theatrical effect.
The show has over a hundred sound cues in it, some tiny and some big, that I really try and integrate into the telling of the story. So, it is quite a technical challenge, but one that eventually became second nature to me. The Loop station is like a co-performer really. And I can – and do – blame her if things go wrong!
Lost in Blue runs from 15 to 26 February 2022 at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, 42-44 Gaisford St, London NW5 2ED, with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm. Tickets £14 (concessions £12). CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!