A man on a roof beckons to a stranger on the street. His name is Arthur, and he wants her to push him off. It is a cheery beginning to a play that enjoys even as it questions life, as over the next twenty-four hours Arthur’s life is unwound and things naturally get much, much worse.
The Man Upstairs takes as its subject how (largely) normal people deal with relationships today, as they consider the merits of a Ploughman’s, Tchaikovsky and Loose Women. The staging is relatively simple – a tripartite stage to tie the locations together – to suit the short time span, bringing the focus entirely onto the interactions, particularly as the arrival of Arthur’s wife Helen introduces the darker backstory to the audience. The main idea of the play – the distance in the modern world from the actual experience of life – is explained in terms which are both initially hilarious and also disturbing later on examination. Today’s world makes no sense; how then can we cope?
Technically the idea of re-examining our reasons for living is nothing new – people have been dissecting that for years. It is a likable group of characters though, well-acted and oddly believable with their lives, stories, likes and dislikes, Tim Kiely’s writing finding the amazing, the ridiculous, the mundane and the depressing in everyday life. In addition, the play asks how far we can cope with each other’s problems on top of our own, as trying to save Arthur quickly takes its toll on each character: Zoe, the student fighting to keep him alive; Helen, the estranged wife; Will, the friend concerned for Zoe’s wellbeing.
Given that the entire play is centred around trying to save him, Arthur needs to be sympathetic, even as the sort of character who could easily veer off into unpleasantness and even parody with his cynicism and overly verbose manner. Fortunately Vyvyan Almond plays him with just the right amount of frustration and feeling, even with some comic timing; you can feel his irritation with a world not up to his intellectual standards. As a result, at times he threatens to overshadow his fellow actors, particularly the necessary quiet foil of Zoe (Zoe Bullock), who acts more as story enabler unless she herself is the subject of the scene. Nevertheless, she contrasts well with the more over-the-top characters, helping to anchor the play. Almond also has competition with the more understated Caitlin McMillan as Arthur’s wife Helen, conveying brilliantly first distant frustration and then the memory of old love.
While technically a simple enough idea with simple enough staging, good writing and a great cast create a meditation on life and its sufferings which is well worth the watch.