Down’s But Not Out opens in a hospital with a scene of a family delighted at the birth of a new baby. The father and mother are enthralled by their little son, his older siblings fight to get a closer look at their new baby brother.
The audience waits for this perfect family scene to be shattered by the news that baby Luke has Down’s syndrome. We know from the outset that the play will follow his path as he grows and copes with his condition and society’s prejudices. The name of the play puns on the syndrome itself.
But writer and director Raymond Murray shakes up his audiences’ preconceptions from the start. The Sharkey family have already heard that Luke has Down’s syndrome. The doctor calmly explains more about the condition, ‘a mild learning disability’ coupled with distinctive physical characteristics.
She tells the family that it’s nothing to worry about, really, and their delight in the arrival is obvious. So it is the audience that must question their opinions of the illness.
Down’s But Not Out examines some of the social and medical developments surrounding Down’s syndrome by comparing the contemporary experiences of the Sharkey family with a parallel experience of their plight, had Luke been born in a different era.
Scenes of the Sharkey family in 2010 are interspersed with scenes featuring the same actors playing analogous characters in 1960. The dramatic device is very effective at depicting the strikingly different attitudes between the two periods, and how different life for Luke might have been.
In 1960 the doctor warns Mrs Sharkey (Karen McConville) that ‘you have no idea what’s ahead of you’, and that a Down’s syndrome child is unlikely to live past its 20s.
The moment when he tells Mrs Sharkey that she could leave baby Luke with him to ‘sort out’ and walk away without a second thought is chilling. It seems a world away from the relaxed reassurances of the doctor in the opening scene.
The time is still 1960 when Mark Blevins first makes his entrance in the lead role as Luke to portray the protagonist as a young boy. His siblings’ peers visibly react to his appearance on stage with a mix of curiosity and confusion.
Schoolboy Charlie (Michael McAleenan) can only see Luke as a freak to be pitied. Charlie, lacking in empathy, casually delivers the name-calling and insults. Murray does not shy away from including insulting terms of abuse to convey the sad realities: ‘mongol’, ‘retard’, ‘should be locked up’.
The dialogue effectively conveys how deeply this kind of easy discrimination lay in the society of the time. The cavalier manner in which one so young verbally assaults an innocent boy is particularly harrowing.
Blevins is an actor with Down’s syndrome, adding another affecting element to the cruelty directed at his character. It is challenging for the audience to watch. Blevins handles the more testing scenes skilfully, with Luke’s sense of isolation and rejection played with great control.
A talented and experienced actor, Blevins has previously acted with MADS drama group in Craigavon, Stage Struck in Banbridge and successfully auditioned for Bugsy Malone in the Grand Opera House in Belfast in summer 2011.
Blevins’ range as an actor is conveyed through the witty and lively young man we see Luke grow to become in the contemporary scenes. Luke is more than able to hold his own in the repartee with his peers, with Blevins clearly revelling in his comedic lines.
Luke’s older siblings and their school friends bring much light-hearted relief to the play. The bawdy banter between mates reveals much about the general societal changes since 1960. Aspirations at that time included having a colour television and bathing more than once a month.
These incidental details provide laughs whilst showing Down’s But Not Out to be as much an exposition of the period as it is ‘issue’-driven. It is also a mark of Murray’s perceptive observations of young people to note that some things have stayed the same from the 1960s to the present day. Teenagers are still preoccupied with sex, football, scandal and gossip.
The teenagers are the markers of social progression. The young people in 2010 find it hard to believe that Down’s syndrome would once have attracted taunts and bullying. They describe Luke’s experiences of mainstream schooling alongside their own.
The dramatic device of comparing parallel experiences from a different era is given further depth when the young characters relate stories they have heard about their families from the 1960s. Charlie of 2010 reveals that he had an uncle with Down’s syndrome who died in an institution at just 24. ‘What Luke has now people laughed at 50 years ago,’ he says.
Luke’s experience of hateful name-calling as a young boy in 1960 closes to the poignant refrain of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles. Contrast this with Keane’s ‘Everybody’s Changing’ which opens the last act set in 2010, marking the young friends’ transition from teenagers to adulthood as well as the evident progress in social developments. Musical Director Jonathan McGuinness’ excellent song choices are never obtrusive and complement each scene beautifully.
Raymond Murray successfully conveys the starkly disparate views towards Down’s syndrome from two periods of time 50 years apart. Down’s But Not Out goes some way to dispel prejudices and present people with the condition in a positive way.
Down’s But Not Out will be revived at the Market Place Theatre, Armagh on May 25, 2012