Rum in the Gravy Boat

A play about mental health and growing up with an alcohol-dependent mother. Admittedly, a fairly hard sell for a Friday afternoon. For just 55 minutes, Rum in the Gravy Boat packs a lot in - actor Leigh Johnstone's whole childhood, to be exact. What threatened to be a dark and heavy piece proved to be anything but; frank and funny, light-hearted but moving, the play was an inspiring theatrical accomplishment.

Frank and funny, light-hearted but moving, the play was an inspiring theatrical accomplishment

Playing to a small crowd in The Warren's Blockhouse, Leigh Johnstone introduces Rum in the Gravy Boat with a voiceover, saying the piece is the first play he's written about his life. What follows is a unique blend of storytelling, drama, autobiography, and comedy, which is initially slightly jarring when you're not familiar with Fluid Motion Theatre Company's style of work. We're taken through the innumerable bedrooms Leigh grew up in and all the way through school, where Leigh found his passion and escape in theatre. The story tumbles out from a green metal frame house littered with boxes from which Leigh produces various props to illustrate his story. One subtle touch is the gradual accumulation of wine bottles on the stage, a small detail communicating the huge effect his mother's alcoholism had on his childhood.

Both Leigh and Ali Gill, who played Leigh's mother, were captivating from the start, tearing through the extremely varied material with raw and endless energy. Their performances were backed up by very slick and effective sound design that for me, was a particular highlight of the show.

Structurally, the piece felt chaotic and a little muddled at times, with parts of Leigh's experiences whipped past in just a sentence and the stark contrast of comedy and drama sometimes leaving you at a loss. However, before slating the structural integrity of the piece, it could be that the play's confusion effectively reflects Leigh's childhood and his mother's life: disjointed, confusing and full of pressure. The inclusion of Leigh's mother's voice talking about her feelings about a play about her struggles is as unexpected as it is powerful, and was a unique and memorable addition to the emotional texture of the play.

Rum in the Gravy Boat is a deeply personal story that, although at times difficult to watch, will remain long in the mind for its intense bravery. For Leigh's first play about himself, it's certainly worth the watch.

Reviews by Lois Zoppi

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The Blurb

“Thought-provoking and important play. First class lesson in using theatre to explore serious subjects in a playful and accessible way.” (British Theatre Guide) “Told with a considerable amount of bravery. Leigh's performance is captivating.” (Newbury Weekly News) Playful and energetic, yet moving and raw, this is a story about sexual awakenings, plastic microphones, an alcoholic mother and alopecia. Based on the actor's own life and developed through Fluid Motion's unique autobiographical style, this is a personal account into how theatre can make sense of the past.

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