I don’t have to venture too far for The Room Upstairs, part of a double bill at east London’s Wanstead Fringe Festival, which is now in its 10th year. It is an utter joy to be enjoying theatre in a town close to home, above The Bull, a grand but exceedingly cosy pub. Through a nice hustle and bustle for a Monday night we’re led into a fairly small function area above the pub. Here, there are rows of leather Chesterfield sofas as stalls, with a plate of Bourbon biscuits on the arm of each. It’s tick, tick so far!
With a blend of diary entries, music, puppetry and memories, this one-hour awareness-raising tale is the story of a daughter, living with her mum who has an as yet undiagnosed invisible illness. Mum is actually also invisible throughout this one-woman show, so daughter relates to, and converses with, her mother as though she is responding. Not an easy task to pull off but the writer and star of the play, Lani Calvert, does it charismatically and with witty ease. It is a little bizarre to accept at first, but with all the focus that’s spent, of course, on the patient, it’s a perfect way to hone in unobtrusively on the daughter’s experience.
Calvert, a Canal Café Theatre regular, grew up with a mother who suddenly developed ME/CFS and her passion to show the struggle for diagnosis, the overwhelming need to be believed and supported, shines through. The brave directorial choices of Marissa Landy fascinate throughout; there’s a juncture when we’re plunged into darkness, bar a couple of green exit lights, for many minutes while an audio track follows the parallel running, interchanging day-in-the-life of each character. I love how this forces us to explore our imaginations, but it is a little repetitive and lengthy. I needed less of the soundscape, or for the moment to be visually filled with more.
There are so many moving moments to empathise with in this show. Hearing the lived experience of a young woman who has grown up in an oppressive and often emotionally charged environment is extremely moving. I admire the brave face she puts on; I’ve seen this in family members of my own who have experienced the world of ill health. It is important that Calvert has created this brilliantly written piece and that Landy, a huge advocate for telling stories around health, has supported this change-making slice of life in the room upstairs.
Written by Lani Calvert
Directed by Marissa Landy
Produced by Baloney Theatre
The Room Upstairs and Robot Penguin play either as stand along shows or as a double bill as part of Wanstead Fringe until 22 September. Further information can be found here.