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By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson


Monday, January 5, 2009.


Don Kinch’s ‘Coming Up for Air’ is unsettling. One of the enduring strengths of this experienced writer’s production about mental health is a searingly realistic script.  Although written in 1987 and last performed in 2001, it’s a piece that is as relevant and topical now as when it was first performed.


The play recently concluded a three-city tour with a final performance at Bethnal Green’s Rich Mix arts centre in December. The inspiration for the play itself came from a true story told to Mr Kinch, by a man who, after an angry exchange with his sister, was arrested, taken to a mental hospital and held for three weeks under the UK's Section 22 of the Mental Health Act. The man said he was physically and verbally abused, drugged and later diagnosed as schizophrenic. 


The subject was mirrored a few days before the London run when a report published by the Healthcare Commission revealed the extent of the racism and discrimination faced by Black people who come into contact with the mental health system.


This then was the backdrop for a disturbing and dramatic piece of theatre.


A duel of intelligence and perception between a man charged with high profile ‘Columbine’-style multiple murders and an Oxbridge educated psychiatrist - is the accused - Denzil Nurse - criminally insane, mentally ill or just bad. And is his psychiatric [mis?] treatment a toxic mix of racist assumptions and negative attitudes towards mentally ill people.  How to decide [without giving credence to stereotypes about this unsettling illness and about Black people] is at the heart of this drama.


Directed by Olusola Oyeleye on an open transparent set, where the audience’s attention is often split between the simultaneous sharp dialogue and fluid action of the four different characters, the drama compels its audience to carefully consider sensitive mental health issues.


Olusola Oyeleye made clear though in a recent interview:  "We don’t abdicate responsibility for real crimes and the character Denzil Nurse has committed a real crime; it takes that fact into account".


In a compelling demonstration of his craft,  an unkempt, unshaved James Hamilton occupies the Denzil role totally. A sympathetic and amiable character, he is impulsive, uninhibited; his body language and demeanour unrestrained – but there is clarity and an articulate logic to his arguments.


During the first of three exchanges with psychiatrist Dr Jules Wright [Adanna Oji] the accused/patient is - paradoxically - persuasive and dominant. As the verbal combat develops, Denzil - questioning assumptions about his apparent mental illness, the motive for his actions - becomes the interrogator. Ostensibly in charge of this process, Dr Jules is effortlessly dominated. The question is posed: "Who is on top? Who should we sympathise with? "


A subtext is conflict between Caribbean Denzil and the Africa-born Dr. Jules. One representing the establishment, the other the disposed and discriminated. However whilst Adanna is as persuasive as Dr Jules, nagging doubts question whether professional psychiatrists would allow themselves to be manipulated in this way.


Throughout each session, the Guard [George Phair] is present. Watching silently, his only interventions are to remove Denzil’s handcuffs or to block invasion of Dr Jules’ personal space. Voiceless, his role embodies society’s prevailing ambivalence to mental health.


Scene changing is done by the four performers and - with Phil Newman’s set design -  this works elegantly. The frame of Denzil’s cell becomes both a window and the front door to Dr Jules’ lounge. Soweto Kinch’s minimalist musical score is not invasive either.


In an intense performance lasting over 90 minutes without a break, we witness an initially agitated Denzil evolve from a perceptively eloquent and vibrant personality to a subdued, lethargic shell.


How he gets there is at the heart of the question the play asks.  Can a modern society deal humanely with people with mental health problems? Why is there persistent racism and discrimination in the way Black people experience the service; and what to do when mental health results in danger to society?


There are clearly no easy answers and the audience is left wondering. Neither is there is a proper ending or tying up of the strings. From an entertainment point of view it’s disappointing – but it accurately reflects the difficult choices and challenging problems of mental health.


Coming Up For Air
Don Kinch
irected by
Olusola Oyeleye
usic by Soweto


 © 2008


Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.

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