bea, Soho Theatre, London

Mick Gordon is a director, writer and essayist who does not shy away from knotty subjects. His previous plays On Ego, On Religion and On Emotion dealt with concepts of the self. Hearty philosophical issues indeed, and for some they proved too much, bordering at times on lectures. In bea, he has moved from self-identity to how that self communicates and is understood by others – that is, empathy. In the process he has transformed the philosophy lecture in to a subtle, complex, challenging piece of theatre.

Bea (Pippa Nixon) is a vivacious girl. She opens the play dancing on her bed, running about her bedroom, full of energy. Her room, where the play takes place, is a typical teenage girl’s room – the double-bed with pink bedspread, the dressing table adorned with jewellery, the pretty dresses hung over glam shoes. But something jars. Occupying the back wall is a giant, golden-framed black board, decorated with rows of earrings, and next to her clothes rail is a grey plastic trolley that looks too ... clinical for its environment. Then there is Ray (Al Weaver), with whom she flirts and jokes, but who is plainly here as her new physical carer, and to whom she dictates a letter, detailing her desire for her mother to help her die.

And so the truth of Bea’s situation is slowly revealed. At first it is mysterious – why the routine of catheters, morphine and making earrings “on a good day”? Why can she communicate so openly with Ray, when her mother barely seems to hear her? As the answers emerge we see how Bea and Ray relate on a mental level. Subconsciously, Ray and Bea mirror each other, in their words and their actions; they empathise. Katherine James (Paula Wilcox), Bea’s mother, is both blinded and guided by her love for her daughter, too afraid to listen to what it is Bea is asking of her.

bea comes close to tying itself up in its own convolutions – the concept is dense, the identities of all three characters shift and merge and the reality of the situation is rarely explicit. But it works. The pace and structure are deftly controlled and layered, and Nixon, Weaver and Wilcox are all exemplary. By the closing scene, we have considered the concept of empathy, the nature of our perceptions of those with severe physical disabilities, and the morality of euthanasia – and all in a manner moving, philosophical and without a hint of the lecture theatre about it. ()

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