Suspension breeds suspense in the first full-length work from playwright Serena Haywood, as Chris’s mother and best friend try to come to terms with their loved one’s drunken fall into a vegetative state. Throughout this taut and cerebral horror, Haywood embraces the complications and contradictions within her characters with tact, grace and clarity, through a script that buzzes with understated energy under Tutku Barbaros’s suggestive direction.
Rich in tension and unpredictability as it delivers a collage of life before and after Chris’s accident, Pause jumps across genres, milking each for potential emotional power. With its domestic setting and proficiency at presenting long-standing relationships, suds from the soap operas are certainly at play here. Pause truly captivates, though, when it lingers on the more figurative details: using a feather-light hand that hints at a past rivalry, Haywood demonises the cherished pillow that Chris once took from his best friend. With a nod to the minds of Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King, Haywood carves a weapon from these feathers and their history, bringing an ambiguous cinematic flair to the play’s most tense moments.
As the doctors who monitor Chris’s reaction to simple goals start to lose hope that he will ever recover, the resolution of a fiercely maternal Victoria (Caryl Jones) remains intact. Propelled by a folder full of anecdotal evidence concerning various treatments, Victoria’s denial drips right through the production’s design. Her refusal to accept the current situation is evident in her prim vintage sundress and sensible clean white lace-ups; it can be seen in how she paraphrases the drug-induced nostalgia of Coleridge, imagining Chris’s rehabilitation centre as a “stately pleasure dome”; it’s also evident in the way in which she playfully punches her son’s arm with a neat, youthful smile, like a victorious character ripped straight out of Enid Blyton. Through her closely themed dress, gestures and words, Jones’s Victoria has become the very embodiment of her longing for a long-lost time.
But while Jones’s poetic reminiscence is all very strong, the highlight of this production is the relationship between Ryan Wichert’s Chris and Samuel Caseley’s Mark, which is crafted with a gentle, unsweetened humour that embraces the differences between the two young men. When Chris talks about his place on an architecture degree programme, Mark ridicules the man who was “always so shit at lego”; class divisions are lightly toyed with in an equally inelegant gibe from Chris, when, with dazzling timing, he passes his offensive comments off as banter designed to impress his “plumber” friend. As the young men joke and flirt with each other with a spirited, unclassified dynamism, there is a refreshingly subtle power to their intimacy.
While it is largely a piece of tight, apprehensive frankness, Pause occasionally brushes a little too closely to the sentimental. At these weaker points, the play underestimates its own force, overdoing the application of grief that works best when it is trusted to be acute. The exchanges between Victoria and Dr Martha Potter, while certainly well acted, weaken the play’s hold, and Victoria’s question “Do you have children?” seems a little cliched. Similarly, just a short while after our doting mother drapes a blue and white scarf around Chris’s neck in an attempt to remind him of the team he once supported, the doctor’s casual mention of a daughter who plays for Chelsea is a little jarring. These moments, together with a clunky scene where Victoria leaves the boys pudding for a later that is unlikely to happen, bring stodgy dollops of mawkishness, and serve as unnecessarily drawn-out additions to a play that chillingly demonstrates how easy it is for one second to change multiple lifetimes.