I like bringing things home from the theatre. No – I don’t go stealing props or signs or anything like that but I’ll get a programme, freesheet and promo flyer whenever I can. I have boxes in a somewhat organised pile about two metres away from me now. Occasionally there will be something else, like pieces of paper torn on stage and flung into the audience or something similar. Those few little things get put into the programme and filed away. But I have absolutely no idea what I would do with the foam stick used to keep coma patients’ mouths hydrated and clean that one bemused member of the audience was handed at this performance…
From the start, Symbiont sets out to talk about the inevitable – to speak of death and to normalise talking about it, directly and with humour via stand-up. Ellie Gallimore plays Kathryn. She is our host, our guide for the evening, as she moves through what could be a medical lecture about the effect death has on our bodies to some examples of how death has always been a part of our culture. This includes the use of an Aztec death whistle – which of course we all expect to hear on an evening in The Vaults under Waterloo Station. Gallimore is a great presence; her delivery is excellent as she uses comedy, music, dance and even Mexican waves. She is funny and genial while moving around the stage and occasionally up through the aisles, sometimes speaking directly to audience members in both intended moments and in occasional asides.
I have to admit I am a bit confused as to why Symbiont describes itself as a horror story: this emphatically put off my partner who declined to come with me, which is a shame as I think she’d have really enjoyed this. If a part of the intent is to address some of the stigma of talking about death, labelling this as horror seems counterintuitive. I would very much suggest Caged Bird revisit their description.
Having set the scene by talking about death, Symbiont then delivers an emotional gut punch as we hear a recording of playwright Patrick Swain talking with his father, who was present at the time, about the specific moment of his mother’s death. I was so glad that I knew the playwright’s name and made the connection, as this moment excels. Honestly, with the impact of that recording, I wonder if any thought was given to moving it towards the end of the play? This move into a semi-autobiographical story shifts the last stages of the evening as we realise that Swain wrote this play as a response to his mother’s death. It is here that the production comes into its own as it moves away from the stand-up elements, takes a new shape and reveals its emotional core.
While I hope somewhere in London one gentleman has found a place for a foam stick keepsake, I suspect it will be the emotional impact of Symbiont which stays with its audience. I will remember that recording for quite some time.
Directed by Jasper Frost
Written by Patrick Swain
Produced in support of The Christie Charitable Fund
Symbiont has completed its current run. Check Caged Bird’s website for any further dates here.