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Theatre Review: Tomcat

16 November 2015
Appeared in BioNews 828


By James Rushbrooke

Southwark Playhouse

28 October – 21 November 2015

'Jessie should never have been born.'

This unsettling statement captures the premise of Tomcat, a play set in a future where state-controlled prenatal screening has eradicated all genetic conditions. Nearly all, that is. The play's protagonist, Jessie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), slipped through the screening net. This 12-year-old has a psychological condition that could manifest at any time. She has lived in a medical facility since infancy, under constant surveillance, with no external influences other than the staff looking after her, and her view through a skylight.

The theatre, the Little at Southwark Playhouse, is perfect for this story. The audience arrives to find themselves sitting around a bed – it took me a few moments to realise there was someone in it already, apparently sleeping as we shuffled into our seats. This clever set design immediately puts the viewer into the role of the 'mirror people', as Jessie calls the concealed observers watching her in her isolation room.

Tomcat is an innovative play, which uses an intimate setting and tightly knit cast of five to weave multiple reproductive health and genetics issues into a handful of stories. Mostly it succeeds in being engaging, entertaining and thought provoking.

The play was the winner of the 2015 Papatango New Writing Prize, and author James Rushbrooke has a background in young people's advocacy and developmental psychology, experience which shows in both the dialogue and themes.

For me, the play works best when the relationships between the characters are given time to develop. Small, warm moments between Jessie and Tom (Brian Doherty), her key worker, add colour and depth to the big issues being discussed, as well as some well-needed humour. Their father–daughter style relationship personalises the ethical conflicts portrayed through their story.

As well as Tom, we meet two other characters from the medical facility. Caroline (Diana Kent), Jessie's doctor since infancy, is proud to have conducted the last recorded interview with the mother of the last person ever to have Down's syndrome. I found her description of Down's syndrome as 'the smallpox of our generation' chilling in its implications. Her portrayal intrigued me. While she starts as a figure of authority who has restricted Jessie’s development, over the course of the story we come to understand her motivations. This nuanced evolution makes the dramatic turn her story takes at the end more engaging.

Charlie (Edward Harrison) is the new doctor taking over Jessie's care. He brings a different approach to managing and studying Jessie. He takes risks with Jessie that Caroline would not have, in an academic effort to understand Jessie's development.

A key theme of the play is the ethics of research into genetic conditions. Jessie has been kept captive to protect humanity from her future disease, but captivity also provides an opportunity to conduct research on a classic question – the role of nature versus nurture. As Dr Charlie’s research ambitions progress, his methods become more and more invasive, and the audience is left to draw its own line between what is acceptable and what is not.

In some places too much ethical ground was covered too quickly, and here I felt the storytelling suffered . This is most evident in the story of Charlie and his wife Rachel (Susan Stanley). We see only a small chink of their relationship – just enough to know there is conflict, but not enough to shed light on their predicament.

Rachel is pregnant with a fetus that has an unlawful inherited disorder. While Charlie accepts that 'it isn't a baby, it's an unviable fetus', Rachel is prepared to take extreme measures to breach a termination order; she knows of a past era when people lived with this condition. This could be an interesting addition to the play's central story, but by occurring as brief asides to the main plot the subtleties in their relationship and feelings are lost. As a doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology, I work with pregnant women facing difficult decisions and I appreciate the complexity of these issues for all involved. But the lack of emotional detail did not ring true and left me feeling surprisingly flat for such an emotive topic.

Tomcat is original and at times delightful, with some huge questions wound into 95 minutes that could each stand as chapter headings in a medical ethics textbook. What right does the state have to control people's reproductive choices? Is the goal of prenatal screening to eradicate genetic syndromes and diseases? Should society's gains from research be allowed to override individual autonomy? What is the defining threshold between mental illness and normal behaviour?

The play works best when it meshes these fundamental questions with excellent acting, tightly crafted dialogue and small human details. When the dialogue serves only to explain the dilemmas it risks becoming too abstract.

Not quite perfect but definitely worth seeing, Tomcat runs until 21 November 2015 at Southwark Playhouse.

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