Playwright Jordan Tannahill is slowly making his presence felt in London since he moved from his native Canada. He is the author of a ground-breaking autobiographical piece being developed by the National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling studio. Using Virtual Reality technology, it transports its audience back to Tannahill’s childhood. This play was written when Tannahill, still only 29, was living in Ottawa and was a “queer teen of the suburbs” to use his own description.
The play was triggered by the death of a gay teenager and Tannahill’s response imagines a dinner hosted by the parents of a dead boy, played by Lucy Robinson and Todd Boyce. The main guest is Curtis (David Leopold), one of the boys who bullied their son at school. Also invited are Curtis’s parents (Alex Lowe and Lisa Stevenson). There is, we discover, a previous agreement that letters are to be read out. One from the grieving mother to Curtis so that he might better understand the effect of his actions, and one from Curtis to the grieving parents, to apologise.
If that sounds like a slightly contrived set-up for a play, the result is anything but. Nor is it maudlin. Rather, this is a closely observed exploration of grief written with such wit and nuance it makes you wonder what Tannahill can produce as a mature writer. Particularly impressive is how the loyalty of the parents, to their offspring and to each other, is in constant flux as details about their sons’ lives emerge throughout the evening. It’s beautifully acted, with Lowe and Boyce in particular superbly portraying two different kinds of father.
It’s an incredibly powerful evening, too, and although London theatre culture loves to subvert conventions of the stage, thankfully director Michael Yale opts to allow the suburban setting, the crackle of Tannahill’s writing and five terrific performances to do the work.