Hope Theatre, London – until 1 June 2019
Bold as you like, Chalk Line’s Testament is a breath of bracingly fresh air into the Hope Theatre with its blend of physical theatre, metaphysical narrative and contemporary issue-baiting. Plays about mental health, especially in young men, are hot currency at the moment as people try and do something, anything, to help tackle the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. And Sam Edmunds’ drama feels like a powerful addition to that effort.
Max wakes up in his hospital bed in a bit of a fug. Having survived a car crash that killed his girlfriend a while back, he’s just tried to take his own life and though he has failed, he’s suffering from brain trauma. The upshot to that is that he’s forgotten what’s happened, he still believes his girl Tess is alive; the downside is that his medical condition is dire and his brother has to convince him to undergo a procedure that will make him lose her all over again.
It’s a vividly effective way of portraying the pole-axing effects of grief and the desperation it provokes to cling on to even the most destructive of memories. Edmunds complicates this thought process by introducing Jesus and Lucifer into Max’s psyche and we see them philosophising and debating medical ethics while in the ‘real world’, we watch Max’s brother Chris talk through the cold realities of the necessary surgery with a doctor waiting for consent to be given.
Co-directors Edmund and William Harrison clearly relish the challenges of the piece and fill it with some brilliantly bold decision-making. Harrison’s sound design with Alan Walden’s lighting take no prisoners at all in creatively suggesting the torment of post-trauma recovery, with haunting flashbacks to that fatal crash. Max’s condition is evoked mainly through an angular physicality, given visceral life by Nicholas Shalebridge in a ferociously committed performance that sees him pin the audience down with his uncompromising directness.
There’s also excellent work from William Shackleton as Chris, a gentler soothing presence – honestly, even the worst news would seem bearable if he held your hand and told it to you – albeit one who is not unproblematic, as the pieces of the non-linear puzzle here start to fall into place. There’s fun too in a genius nightclub scene, you can literally smell the Lynx Africa and taste the WKD Blue, everything I imagined straight clubbing to be!
More importantly, the themes of loss and guilt are never diminished here, as the push through the most difficult of situations is illuminated with intelligence and sensitivity. It’s never easy, it can’t be, but Edmunds points to the way forward that is always there, even if we think we don’t want to find it.