GBS. As acronymns go its not the most imediately familiar. It could stand for any number of things, but in Canadian playwright Jason Hall’s new play they stand for Gilliam Barre Syndrome, a disease of the nervous system that has hospitalised Rich and Sam’s father.
This unexpected illness brings togther two brothers who have not seen each other in some time, Sam has been living in the UK for the past few years whilst Rich has stayed home in Toronto. As premises go it doesn’t sound particularly original: two brothers, polar opposites in character, drawn together by a family tragedy. Yet Hall writes in a fresh and endearing manner, placing his characters in absurd situations but ensuring their reactions are resolutely human. These guys don’t feel like characters on the stage but people who have lives outside the play, both men are well-rounded and believable.
The bulk of the play takes place as Rich and Sam drive from the airport to the hospital where their father lies comatose in intensive care. Along the way they visit Rich’s ex-wife, run into an old school friend and stop off at various skate parks and doughnut shops. This episodic structure allows for several laugh-out-loud incidents (especially the scene with Rich’s scary ex), but is also not without its unexpectedly touching moments.
The writing is backed up by two strong performances by Kristian Bruun and Daniel Fine (as Rich and Sam respectively). Rich is put-upon mechanic, bringing up a young daughter after the collapse of his marriage, Sam used to work for the BBC but after staff cutbacks, took a job in a bar called HOMO; these men couldn’t be more different and yet they are always believeable as brothers.
The road-trip formula is a familiar one, and it’s impossible to watch GBS without a numer of American independent movies jumping to mind (indeed the dialogue smart, funny and rapidly delivered recalls the work of Kevin Smith in the way it successfully combines a warm heart with a foul mouth).
Directed by Anna Ledwich, the staging is kept deliberately simple, the only props two small wheeled stools (used to great comic effect in some nicely choreographed driving scenes). This allows the script to speak for itself and Ledwich paces the episodic narrative nicely, shifting fluidly between broad comedy and the play’s more emotive moments.
Uplifting and entertaining, GBS tackles some big themes (coming to terms with the mortality of one’s parents, the need for love in our lives whether it be familial or romantic) in an inventive way. Theatre 503, a small South London studio theatre, is adept at picking the best in new writing – GBS is a prime example of this.