“Breathing Irregular” at the Gate Theatre

Medicine makes good drama – a glance at the television schedules makes that clear. Director Carrie Cracknell knows this too, and has used genuine emergency services transcripts to devise Breathing Irregular. The result is a powerful and deeply moving 40-minute show that offers a fresh take on what happens when we dial 999.

Choreographed by Jane Mason, the piece uses dance to interpret the actions and emotions of those in danger and those who discover them while waiting for help to arrive. The shock and tension, and the balance between fear and the desperate need to stay calm, are embodied in a sequence of falling and running movements along with fleeting moments of contact. Random stories interact with the dance and interweave with an evocative score from Tom Mills and singing from Mary Erskine.

Conversations from the emergency services are re-enacted by a versatile cast that takes turn to play those making and those answering these all-important calls. The stories we hear are heartbreaking but life affirming, and the humanity and professionalism of the operators shines through.

Eva Magyar movingly plays a woman guided via telephone to give birth alone. Brendan Hughes conveys the shock of finding a neighbour with his arm cut off. Temitope Ajose-Cutting, who possesses an extraordinary physicality, is convincing as someone who watches her father have a stroke and strives to keep herself and her family calm. A superb Bryony Hannah gets to play both a mother desperate to save her child from a burning building and a child confused by his mother’s collapse.

Joining the transcripts at random moments frustrates our desire for narrative and reinforces the randomness of the events. Holly Waddington’s design is superb: ropes attach the stage to the ceiling and so the tilting floor appears suspended, capable of moving at the slightest breath; oxygen masks double up as telephones, enforcing the connection between those who seek help and that reiterated question to those on the scene, ‘is their breathing irregular?’

Time seems to act strangely in such dramatic circumstances. In a most touching scene the entire cast stands in line and faces the audience while waiting for an ambulance – staring out, they depict a visceral tension as they wait in total silence for a breathtaking duration. It was a poignant reminder of courage in adversity and the fragility of life.

Until 27 February 2010

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 3 February 2010 for The London Magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.