20 Stories High and Contact Theatre
The Contact Theatre, Manchester
01 February 2017 to 04 February 2017
The price of freedom is, as they say, eternal vigilance. It seems like we constantly have to revisit debates on controversial subjects like abortion that had previously been resolved as those who did not agree with the decision attempt a reversal. As I Told My Mum I Was Going On An R.E. Trip makes clear, although objectively there might be legal entitlement to abortion subjectively, from the viewpoint of individuals, the debate is far from over. In fact the election of the misogynist Donald Trump as President of the United States brings a new urgency to the debate; a sense of trying to preserve rights that are in danger of being rescinded.
Julia Samuels based her play on interviews with over 50 individuals ranging from young women, boyfriends, parents, doctors and campaigners. As director she ensures that the play does not feel like the tired verbatim theatre format with some startling innovations not all of which are completely successful. The most obvious development is that the cast do not recite the script from memory but rather articulate verbally the opinions of the interviewees that are conveyed to them via headphones. At best this allows some powerful moments with two actors playing the same character simultaneously and taking turns speaking the lines. But it also has an alienating effect as the cast pause to synchronise their headphones and break the mood by telling jokes during technical glitches.
Samuels makes extraordinary demands of the four talented members of the cast. The narrative is based on the stories of four individuals but the cast also enact the characters of their partners and health professionals requiring switching from scouse to Irish accents and adopting a whole range of mannerisms. The cast also enthusiastically throw themselves into telling the story by way of Hip Hop songs in a startling sequence where the ticking of a waiting room clock merges into a musical beat.
The narrative moves in chronological order from the unplanned conception, through realising pregnancy has occurred, determining a course of action and enduring the process. It is the fine details that draw the strongest emotional reaction; a schoolgirl scheduling the abortion around her examination timetable or a sequence of a woman rising wordlessly after the procedure putting on her shoes and leaving.
Samuels does not shy away from the controversy surrounding abortion. The play is deliberately provocative and the opinions are expressed in such a subjective manner there is a strong possibility it may make you acknowledge your own prejudices of which you were unaware. Even advocates of abortion may find the blasé attitude regarding taking precautions before intercourse or the reference to holding a party after the termination a bit much. Aware that people hold strong opinions Samuels stages a debate on the ethical time limit after which an abortion cannot be performed that deliberately draws more heat than it sheds light on the subject.
Although the title suggests the play is aimed at young people I Told My Mum I Was Going On An R.E. Trip does not feel like a cautionary tale but rather an effort to contribute to the debate by conveying the complexity of the abortion issue and illustrating the impact upon individuals.
Reviewer: David Cunningham