Sarah has two children – Hannah and Tom. Hannah, the older of the two, is easy-going and amenable. Tom, 8, “is kind of like… the Energiser Bunny meets Tassie the Devil”, says his mum.
She hastens to add – he is lovable and bright and loves to climb. On roofs and windmills and especially trees. In trees he feels safe when he is anxious. He also feels safe (and emotionally forthcoming) when he has his plush toy Monkey close by.
Many families deal with such behaviour management issues and struggle to keep on top of things. Sarah takes Tom to doctors for testing and assessments. But he is not declared “on the spectrum” or given any definitive diagnosis. By some grimly absurd logic that makes him ineligible for funded support.
In its premiere Fringe season at Holden Street Theatres, That Boy takes us into one crowded hour of Tom’s life. It is a graphic and detailed account of the routines and strategies a solo mother uses to manage an unpredictable child.
The staging is as simple as it is compelling. Meg Wilson’s raised platform set (warmly lit by Jordan Scheer) presents the complete chaos of a child’s bedroom in all its multi-coloured detail. Two model palm trees stand by the bed, stacks of bright red storage boxes, toys, games and discarded clothes cover the entire floor. A large Lego mat barely contains the bits and odds and ends of a profusion of playthings.
Director Yasmin Gurreeboo keeps the narrative close in and the emotion intense, but measured – making the mother’s anguish more poignant. Sascha Budimski’s sound design subtly underscores the action.
It is then the task of Martha Lott to bring this story of love, desperation and persistence into sharp relief. For the full duration of the monologue, Lott’s Sarah is doing what all mothers (and many dads) do. She is tidying Tom’s room as if to re-order his life. Putting things back where they belong, folding clothes, repacking games, reorganising toys and endlessly raking up Lego.
This play covers difficult issues of parental resentment and guilt, of social ostracism, self-harm and suicidal impulse. Lott’s excellent performance – as Sarah steadily coaches herself to be positive, constant and hopeful – is startling in its directness and quiet despair. It is a portrait of courage and devotion, and a lesson in how to tidy a room in 58 minutes.
That Boy is playing at Holden Street Theatres until March 21.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.