A little while ago I was invited to watch Up Down Man at Salisbury Playhouse. The play is a sequel to Up Down Boy , which I have not seen – but I had been reliably informed that you didn’t need to have seen the first play.
In this play Nathan Bessell (pictured above) plays Matty Butler, a 29 year old man with Down syndrome. His mother has recently died, and his father is left caring for him on his own – with regular visits from Matty’s sister.
The play was in the Salberg theatre, which is a small stage and perfect for a performance like this. The play has a cast of six: Matty, his sister Darcy, his father Martin, his deceased mother Odette, Jim and Mr Fox who is his imaginary friend. At some points all of them were on the stage at the same time, but not necessarily aware of, or interacting with each other.
Mr Fox plays the role of verbalising Matty’s thoughts and feelings when he can’t quite find the right words, which is a lovely way of doing things. It was also great to have Matty’s mother as a character in the play despite her being recently deceased. There were some great scenes in the play where Darcy and Martin would be talking (arguing) over what would happen to Matty, and Odette would join in with her own thoughts and feelings.
There’s also an absolutely hilarious moment where Martin goes to talk to Matty about the possibility of having a girlfriend, only to find that actually, Matty would rather have a boyfriend. Feeling like a fool, Martin goes to Darcy about it, who exclaims, “I thought you knew; we all knew!”
But as well as having some truly laugh out loud funny moments, there were some very sad ones. A friend had been to see the performance earlier in the week and had warned me there would be tears – and she was not wrong! Matty’s mother has died just as they were organising an anniversary party, to which all their friends and family were invited. Now she’s gone, Matty doesn’t see why the party shouldn’t go ahead – and it’s this “argument” that flows through most of the play. There are some really touching moments where Matty gets out a box of his mother’s things and attempts to comfort his sister and his father.
The play tackles the question of what will happen to Matty, now that his mother is not here to care for him full time. In a touching and humorous way, it looks at what options someone like Matty, who is dependent on his parents into adulthood, might have as they grow older. The family had previously made the decision not to have Matty go away to college, and now are worried that he is not experiencing enough of the world, and was too reliant on Odette.
I thoroughly enjoyed this play; it was so well put together and brilliantly acted. There was a short discussion afterwards where the cast came out onto the stage with the writer to answer questions from the audience. It was nice to see there were so many people not only with Down syndrome but with learning difficulties too. There were lots of questions about Matty growing up and realising he’s a man, and the idea of the play addressing issues surrounding adults with learning difficulties.
It was great to hear the cast and writer’s takes on the play and how the characters feel and react to things. It’s also nice, considering today is World Down Syndrome Day, to see that Nathan Bessell is “flying the flag” as it were, for people with Down syndrome. His mother wrote the original Up Down Boy play, but when a sequel was mooted she didn’t feel qualified to write about the normal life of a man with Down syndrome because Nathan has spent the intervening years touring and performing as an actor.
It’s hard to believe that not so long ago when a child was born with Down syndrome their parents were advised to just shut them away in an institution and forget about them. To see Nathan Bessell’s performance in this play is to see what the world gains from the single extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome.