Helping your paralysed girlfriend to piss into a bed pan is not the way most teenage boys spend their evenings and the opening scene of Jack Thorne’s new play, When You Cure Me, sets the tone for a production that pulls no punches in its bittersweet exploration of the obligations that love can hem you into.
The third play in the Bush Theatre’s Tainted Love season (after Dennis Kelly’s tense, excellent After The End and Simon Burt’s Bottle Universe), When You Cure Me focuses on Rachel and Peter, two 17-year-olds who are barely six months into their relationship when Rachel is raped at knifepoint. The trauma of the attack induces a psychosomatic paralysis, leaving her unable to move her legs and rendering her bed-ridden and needing to be nursed. She shuns her mother (Gwyneth Strong) and it is Peter she turns to and who becomes convinced that he alone can make her better.
But rather than being morose and depressing, humour runs riot in this play in the shape of Alice, a blonde air-head and James, a cock-sure bully, two school friends, whose visits fill Rachel’s room with cheap vodka and sixth form sagas.
Set entirely in Rachel’s bedroom, this girly haven of stuffed teddies and fairy lights, is a cutting reminder that this young woman, is no longer a child and has been forced into adulthood. But as Rachel begins her recovery you begin to wonder who actually needs who and who the real invalid is.
Initially Peter is the put upon boyfriend, desperate to do all he can and setting himself the one man mission to be Rachel’s counsellor, carer and saviour, but gradually you realise that he needs to be needed, that he only exists to assist when all Rachel really wants is the romantic ideal of him, not someone acting like her father and too scared to be her lover. And as she regains her strength and realises what she wants, she knows it isn’t Peter: “You were really good to dream about,” Rachel tells the forlorn Ben as she turns the “Its-not-you-it-me” adieu on its head and cuts the cord.
Samuel Barnett, (nominated for Best Performance in a Supporting Role at the 2005 Olivier Awards) is superlative as the asthmatic, often catatonic, painfully sweet Peter. Likewise Morven Christie, who plays Rachel, excels in expressing the inner turmoil and reawakening this young woman goes through. And while the characters of James and Alice seem to have been created purely for their comedic value they are played to perfection by Lisa Macdonald and Daniel Bayle, both making their professional debuts.
What really nails this production to the must-see list is Thorne’s incredible ear for dialogue. His protagonists aren’t Dawson’s Creek teenagers: articulate or wise beyond their years, these are British state school spawn, all vulnerability and precociousness, expressing themselves through a crappy lexicon of “yeahs” and “OKs” when everything between these kids is patently far from fine.
And, under the masterful direction of Mike Bradwell, the audience both winces and laughs out loud as their insecurities are unleashed.
When You Cure Me, exposes the misunderstanding and mistakes love can lead you into and the self-serving vices and emotional crutches we insulate ourselves with.
The results are rather wonderful: it’s a long time since I have seen a piece of new writing that has impressed me so much or a cast more worthy of five star reviews and a sell-out run.