Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s much-loved Young Adult novel
There is enough going on here to make Back to Blackbrick worth watching: dance, film and sound all play their part.
Back to Blackbrick’s central protagonist, Cosmo (an endearing and confident Alex Brain), is struggling to cope with the deteriorating memory of his grandfather Kevin (sensitively portrayed by Grahame Edwards), who suffers from Alzheimer’s. For a few moments, one night, Kevin seems suddenly lucid and gives Cosmo a key to the mysterious Blackbrick Abbey. Once there, he is transported back into Kevin’s sometimes troubled past, going undercover as one of the Abbey’s historical residents. His hope is to collect memories for his grandfather that will help him pass his next psychiatric exam, which Kevin must pass to avoid moving into a care home.
Brain gives a strong central performance, supported well by the ensemble cast, who take turns to narrate Cosmo’s journey. The character has a winning naivety, adding some much-needed humour. His meditation on breast milk is particularly funny. This is enhanced by Alex Howarth’s slick, well-choreographed direction and folk band Wovoka Gentle’s exquisite live soundtrack. Subtle and intricate, the music is the production’s highlight. It has a similar sensibility to Tim Van Eyken’s score for War Horse, but incorporates a broader range of folk styles.
However, it is never clear what agency lies behind Cosmo’s time travel, making the play’s historical episodes a real test of the audience’s credulity. They do not always pass. These scenes do not seem to exist in a fully developed world. The characters in the Abbey’s secluded society drift free of social background or personal history. Time jumps forward quickly between scenes, so that we do not learn about the world at the same pace as Cosmo, stopping him from being a suitable vehicle for the audience’s discovery. It also fails to present a convincing reason for this rare visitor’s quick acceptance into the Abbey’s otherwise closed, and initially suspicious community.
Indeed, we do not know until the end of the play whether Cosmo’s adventure is real or imagined, making it difficult to feel a sense of jeopardy. And, as the story is shown through the prism of Cosmo’s naive perspective, we have no means of knowing whether his grandfather actually should move into a care home or not. For a story with such high ideas, the stakes are surprisingly low.
There is enough going on here to make Back to Blackbrick worth watching: dance, film and sound all play their part. Whilst Howarth’s script begins to match this by giving Cosmo a fresh, convincingly contemporary voice, its sentimentality and frequent aphorism make us feel we should have learnt as much as he does from his journey. It is just hard to know exactly what.