James Hamilton, Adanna Oji, Simon Ryerson, George Phair
Written in 1987, Don Kinch’s Coming Up for Air examines the issue of young black men within the mental health system
Denzil Nurse (played by James Hamilton) has been arrested and charged with shooting dead three community leaders.
After standing trial, his lawyer has petitioned that he be examined under the mental health act to ascertain whether or not he was in sound mind when the crime took place.
Upon talking to Denzil, his psychiatrist, Dr Anthony Jarret-Brown (Simon Ryerson), decides he wants a second opinion and enlists Dr Jules Wright (Adanna Oji), a black Zimbabwean born, Oxbridge-educated doctor.
As Dr Wright begins to explore the inner workings of Denzil’s mind, she soon realises that all is not what it seems, and she struggles to decided whether he is really mad.
Don Kinch’s play was written some thirteen years before Joe Penhall’s better known Blue/Orange, but both plays tackle the same subject matter and feature as central characters a patient and a psychiatrist. However in Coming up for Air, the audience are given more of an insight into Nurse’s cultural background and this thus adds an extra layer to their understanding of his situation.
Kinch’s play is well crafted and his characterisation and structuring accomplished, making for a thought provoking and challenging piece. There are no straightforward answers to the questions it poses and as an audience we are encouraged to empathise with Nurse and ask ourselves if he truly is mentally ill or simply a criminal.
The play contains many locations and the set design is a mix of the naturalistic and abstract, the latter more successful than the former. The production begins with Nurse framed by a large white box which is then moved to frame the stage as the play progresses; this successfully conveyed the restriction and entrapment the character feels.
The design was perhaps too complex and too often the audience were kept waiting while unnecessary objects were put into place or costumes changed into.
As Nurse, Hamilton turned in the most convincing performance of the play, excellent as the intelligent and angry young man. He is engaging and charming in the role and moves easily between aggression and composure. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast, but ultimately this is his show.
Coming up for Air is a highly relevant piece that gives you much to think about and the intense and powerful drama will undoubtedly spark debate in the bar afterwards. While at times the pace of Olusola Oyeleye’s production is slowed down by its staging, the overall message of the play is clear and told in a persuasive and interesting way.