The Rotunda Theatre: Bubble
When writer Helen Wood’s brother Philip committed suicide at 27, she spent decades – as she puts it – “colluding in the silence” that followed. She eventually set out to understand her brother’s pain, but that collusion, borne from the grief from his death and the absence of encouragement to ask the important questions while Philip was alive, would keep that understanding forever out of reach. The play that resulted, Let’s Talk About Philip, is a poignant, surprisingly funny, and gracious meditation on the limits of theatre to grant understanding – and on its profound capacity to heal.
Autobiographical shows walk a tightrope. As they become well-travelled, they risk slipping into an uncanny valley: too personal to comfortably embrace theatricality, too polished to read as wholly genuine. Wood deftly navigates this delicate balance, her structural conceits guiding us through denial and grief towards inevitable (if unsatisfied) acceptance.
Keeping the show from that uncanny valley is the excellent Gregor Hunt. Both Hunt and Wood play versions of themselves, but Wood is in charge, remaining herself throughout while acting as puppet master over Hunt, using him to portray a wide range of characters that serve the narrative and her emotional process. This is theatre as therapy. Hunt becomes father, police officer, customer service representative, bereavement counsellor – whatever the investigation requires. This tidy structure gives way when Wood’s frustration forces Hunt into a role he should never have to play: Philip himself. Hunt’s bewilderment at being asked anguished questions that he can’t possibly answer is properly disturbing, a cruel interrogation driven by the most understandable of emotions.
Hunt inhabits each role with clarity while still demonstrating his wildly fluctuating levels of discomfort. Wood’s writing is focused and searing, and her performance always finds the right temperature; mostly demuring to Hunt but with the occasional earned outburst. Derek Bond‘s direction is elegant, with no unmotivated movements or images. I won’t soon forget the heartbreaking scene where Helen places her brother’s suicide note on a board with other bits of “evidence”. The board is filled with maddeningly unhelpful ephemera from the investigation, and, for a moment, it seems like the note will reveal some truths. But though it comes directly from the source (Philip at the peak of his pain), it proves no more illuminating than a clinical coroner’s report or a half-hearted newspaper article. Both the note and Helen seem to deflate before us.
Wood clearly feels that while the show is for her, it is not about her. She hides most details of her personal life aside from a glimpse into her childlessness and social discomfort. This approach keeps ‘Helen Wood’ a bit enigmatic, which is unfortunate considering that Philip, by necessity, remains an enigma as well. Her childhood memories of Philip have a reductive quality: each year of his early life gets summarised by a single sentence which defines him only in relation to her. We learn of his wedding, his wanderlust, and his desire for reinvention, but his deeper emotional gearwork must remain hidden. With two ciphers at the centre of the show, there isn’t much room to dramatise personal transformation.
While this is unquestionably Wood’s tale to tell, I cannot help but wonder how the play might evolve once she feels ready to pass it on. Would she be comfortable entrusting another actress with the role of Helen Wood? This is a potent piece of theatre which holds the potential for new layers and dynamics. I hope that once Wood feels she has completed her healing journey with the play, she will allow other actors to keep Helen and Philip alive.
Written by Helen Wood and Gregor Hunt
Directed by Derek Bond
Produced by HW Productions
Let’s Talk About Philip has completed its run at Brighton Fringe. The play has further dates nationally throughout the year. Check Helen Wood’s website here for all future dates and venues.