GM Fringe: Hand Over Fist

Posted on July 3, 2013

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A darkly humorous and delicately warming story of lost love, sexual attraction and the atomic fist of a baby. Hand Over Fist is a roller-coaster ride of colourful stories about the life of Emily. Struggle along with her as she fights through the barriers of her memory in order to reconstruct the true events of how a romance began.  

The nature of memory is a potent area for scriptwriters to touch on, but few seem to discuss the nature of dementia and its debilitating effect. As it becomes more relevant, perhaps scriptwriters are wary of tackling such a raw subject. My Nan suffered from dementia and had to be placed in a care home, resulting in often distressing, sometimes rewarding and frequently funny exchanges. Hand Over Fist very much encapsulates my experience in its hour on stage.

Hand Over Fist is a very complex and exhausting piece, there’s no two ways about it. You can’t drift off in the middle of it as it requires – no, it demands – your attention. It isn’t often I’m left stunned by a piece of theatre but Hand Over Fist has such a strong effect on you that you cannot help responding to it.

Dave Florez’s script is a very unconventional story. The narrative jumps around through time and through flights of fancy – this is not a straightforward love story. But it is a story of loss and struggle and derives a lot of its power through its repetition. You can say that it’s obvious what will happen but this defies the point – it is the journey that makes this such compelling viewing.

As Emily, Helena Davies gives an extraordinary performance, entirely deserving of wide recognition. It’s an enormously challenging role and one that Davies is more than up to. She runs through the whole gamut of emotions, tears streaming down her face frequently whether required by the emotive script or not. She frequently looks straight at – and into – you, made all the more stronger by the intimate setting. She confidently plays a woman locked away in the prison created by her own mind, her tears reacting to her sentence. An astonishingly moving performance.

Some of Emily’s recollections are a bit embarrassing and crude – one memory involving the titular fist is jarring, others feel much more real and in keeping with what dementia sufferers’ experience. For instance, there are plenty of jokes and inappropriate moments that leave some in the audience not knowing whether to laugh or not – spend an afternoon with dementia sufferers and you’ll soon know that this is entirely authentic.

Joe Mellor’s direction keeps things clear. A lack of props maintain focus on Emily accompanied by gentle music thanks to a background pianist. This non-intrusive music gives a nostalgic and comforting air to Emily’s tale and contrasts with the crescendo reached half way through as Beethoven bursts out of the speakers.

The real wrench comes at the end of the play, as all the pieces and fragments come together making for an impressively emotional climax that barely left a dry eye in the house. It successfully hits home across a number of areas – the nature of love and our brief fleeting lives. The imagery is also potent – a particular photograph that recurs throughout the story will have you in pieces by the end. The hand over fist of the title recurs more than once, and those with first-hand experience of dementia will get a far deeper understanding of its strong meaning and the security blanket it provides for Emily.

The bar for the Greater Manchester Fringe has been set high by Fresh Loaf – and this is exactly what fringe theatre is all about for me – powerful, emotionally charged, thought provoking and lingering long in the mind after the end. Essential viewing.

The Fiction Stroker gives Hand Over Fist four strokes out of five:

4handHand Over Fist is on at The Town Hall Tavern, Tib Lane until 4 July. 

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Posted in: Theatre