Saturday, July 20

Unravelling the Ribbon – Altrincham Garrick Playhouse

At a time when life in the real world presents significant strain, spending an evening at the theatre is seen by many people as an opportunity to escape the stress of their everyday lives. Therefore, ‘Unravelling the Ribbon’, a play dealing with a diagnosis of cancer and its effects on the lives of three women may seem a difficult subject with which to tempt people away from the comfort of hearth and home. However, should they choose to do so they will be rewarded with a production that both tugs at the heartstrings and tickles the funny bone despite its dark premise.

Director Lou Kershaw takes the helm for the first time in the tiny Lauriston Studio and brings an intimacy borne of personal experience to the story of Rose (Caroline Giles), Lola (Alex Saint) and Lyndsey (Holly O’Malley) and their journey through the emotional minefield of living with cancer. This 2007 play by Maureen White and Mary Kelly is structured around monologues from the three protagonists, delivered directly to the audience and only breaking into any form of interaction between the characters in the last part of the play. This is simultaneously a strength and a weakness; it both allows powerful testimony to be conveyed with direct authority, whilst the relentless nature of the both the structure and the subject matter makes it an emotionally depleting experience over the course of the 90-minute first half.

Alex Saint initially portrays Lola as a funny and free spirited older woman, five years into her cancer journey and ostensibly coping well with the fallout from this and the recent loss of her husband. In reality she is falling apart; unable to move on from his death, she constantly talks to his absent spirit as the post piles up in the hallway as she interminably struggles to downsize her possessions. Saint structures her performance well to move from the bright-eyed presentation of a woman coping to the reality behind the mask, eventually finding redemption in her nascent friendship with Rose and her daughter.

O’Malley is superb as the 11-year-old Lyndsey, making her acting debut she brings all the frustrating contradictions and simple world view that form a girl of that age. She is initially wrapped completely in her world and more bothered about playground politics than her mother’s illness. She gradually demonstrates that this selfishness is a survival technique that adolescents use to cope with emotions and situations they do not comprehend and eventually find their own way to learn their new reality. A really great debut and I hope this young actor will continue her path after such a promising beginning.

Giles as Rose is the still centre of the piece. Initially quiet and almost apologetic for her diagnosis and the effect it has on those around her, she grows exponentially until by the conclusion she is Amazonian in stature, understanding her disease and its effect on her entire life and future. Giles employs the juxtaposition of the soft lilting Irish accent with the harshness of the text to devastating effect, calling her cancer ‘Lilly’ – reminiscent of Dennis Potter naming his in honour of Rupert Murdoch! – and gradually throwing off the shackles of orthodoxy and others opinion to embrace the new person that the disease has forced her to become. The portrayal of the treatment and subsequent recovery was heartbreakingly accurate in its veracity; the sheer tedium of life being dictated by appointments and results; the terror of leaving the ‘chemo salon’ when treatment and care is over; and especially the head tilt of sympathy and terror in the eyes of friend’s relatives and colleagues, are all present in Giles performance. The arc is completely truthful and doesn’t shy away from horrific truth but does so in an intensely human way, Kershaw allows this voice full reign and brought tears of sadness, laughter and recognition to this reviewer’s eyes, especially with the musical choices that accompanied the scenes.

Like many people in the opening night audience, i have some personal experience of the issues raised in this play and approached this review with trepidation that the production would prove triggering; it did but in a wholly unexpected and positive way. It reminded me of the strength of the female human spirit to overcome adversity and the humour that we employ towards the everyday indignities that cancer inflicts in order to cope with this disgusting disease.

‘Unravelling the Ribbon’ isn’t an easy watch, but I left the theatre more positive frame of mind than I entered it, and it is an excellent addition to the season of shows showcasing female writers telling female stories with an all-female cast. Highly recommended.

Playing until 24th March,

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 19th March 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.