“Who are we, now that we don’t have kids?” Matthew Roberts performs as three key characters in this touching one-man performance: as two fathers, David and Tom, that lose their 9 and 11 year old children in a tragic accident; and as their adopted son, Andrew. It is clear from the outset that this is a multi-layered story with more dramatic and tragic turns than two parents dealing with grief; Canoe explores a variety of important and difficult themes, but lack of time ultimately means some of these are more glossed-over than others.
Roberts leaves a lasting impression in this heart-warming, and heart-breaking, performance.
The main character, David, is an author of children’s books, and Roberts uses popular childhood tales and stories to illustrate the journey of David’s grief. The first reference that Roberts begins with is an excerpt from Wynken, Blynken and Nod who “sailed off in a wooden shoe.” This popular tale is a thread, fed delicately throughout the performance, which provides a constant, harrowing reminder of the lost childhood and youth that remains at the heart of this production. Tom is David’s partner, and is experiencing grief in a different way, but feeling at a loss with David’s actions. The final character we are introduced to is Andrew, Tom and David’s first son, who they adopted when he was a teenager. Andrew’s part in Canoe is brief but provides context and background to the couple’s past.
Director, Struan Leslie, and Roberts play David and Tom’s experiences of loss and their emotions off each other, creating a performance that illustrates the full range of different emotions and stages that can affect an individual dealing with bereavement. In David we see feelings of guilt, anger, helplessness and blame, whilst Tom displays understanding, hope and the beginnings of acceptance. These contrasting experiences provide a crucial message in this production, illustrating how every individual deals with loss in their own way, and that there is no correct way to grieve. The character of Andrew could easily have been forgotten in this narrative, and he didn’t add much to the already meaty and heavy script. The complex relationship of Tom and David, and their individual characters, were far more interesting and the production could have benefitted from the extra time to explore, for example, Tom’s character more. Whilst we do visit the topics of controversy over gay adoption and homophobic online communities, the complexity and depth of the key themes of loss and outliving your children were enough substance in their own right.
Roberts and Leslie have done a great job at portraying loss, pain and heartbreak in this piece and should be applauded for their effective exploration of how death affects a family. Whilst Canoe could have benefitted from an even more focused script, the story and Roberts leave a lasting impression in this heart-warming, and heart-breaking, performance.