Manchester Playwright, Dave Puller - Getting Better - A Review

Directed by Sarah Wilkinson
Review by Anthony Sides

Getting Better is an enjoyably fast-paced comedy/drama about a drug rehabilitation centre where staff and patients confront themselves and each other.

It gets you to care about people you’d be wary of if you saw them on the street, but it shows them honestly. They’re devious as well as loyal, and angry as well as funny.

The writing, direction and performances make everyone in the play rounded and real.

Getting Better’s about different kinds of power, and the way power switches from one person to another.

Everyone in Getting Better is vivid and complex. You have your favourites, but you don’t miss them when they’re offstage, because all the others are good company.

One killer scene has young addict Iris (Mia Vore) on the phone to her mother, who’s looking after Iris’s children. It’s a slower, quieter moment than many of the others. Vore takes her time.

Iris asks what grade her son got for his art project. There’s something inexplicably moving about the way she listens to the answer.

”Really?” she says.

You see it change her. You feel her connecting with an inner stirring of hope, for her children, and for herself.

In another scene, Kim (Victoria Tunnah) talks to Brian, who runs the centre. In all of her scenes until now, Kim has been confident, irreverent and sexy. Here, she’s shaky and subdued.

Her ex-boyfriend has come to visit and she’s afraid to face him.

“… [H]e turned me in to a prostitute,” she says.

“I loved him,” she says, as if that’s the worst part of all.

Getting Better is funny as well as touching. Dave Puller’s writing is blunt and sharp and effective. No one makes speeches: as in life, they talk to, at or across each other.

The black-box staging shows or suggests everything you need. You focus on the illuminated faces of the actors. The scenes flick past, separated by darkness – at times almost like glimpses in to the windows of a passing train.

Puller’s website says he’s “a lifelong socialist”, but his play is not some left-wing lecture, sentimentalizing the people it depicts and telling you what to think.

It makes you think, and it makes you wonder whatyou really think. There’s an affectionate sex scene that can also be interpreted as the abuse of a vulnerable adult, or as that person asserting power.

The people in the play have problems and have tried to suppress them with drugs or denial, and that has created more problems. They come to realize that, whether it’s their own fault or not, it’s their responsibility to get better. They need some help, and they need to do much of the work themselves.

Fiona (Lynsey McVey, who makes you want to slap the character, and then makes you understand and sympathize), an increasingly stressed counsellor, is causing havoc at the centre. We meet most of the others through her destructive impact on them.

They recognize she’s struggling before she does, and before any of the senior staff notice. She has probed and analyzed all of them but hesitates to drop her own guard. Instead she judges and humiliates them to make herself feel better.

Her boss Brian (Luther Alex) is soothingly laid back, empowering the others. Young client Bagsy (Christopher Faith) – all swagger, game-playing and reluctant emotion – says breezily of the other clients, “This is my family.”

He knows more about manipulating the system than his friend Mogsy (Mark Hill), but defers to Mogsy when the latter confronts staff and articulates the play’s conscience. Mogsy has learned the policies and stated principles of the centre, and recites them back angrily when the staff break their own rules.

“You might listen, but you don’t hear us,” he shouts at Fiona.           

Gail (Leni Murphy) is bossy and nurturing and efficiently focused on her recovery. She helps Iris in a moment of crisis Fiona causes. Murphy has less to do than some of the others but makes Gail nuanced and layered and loud.

There are several big laughs, and audience members who’d experienced rehab laughed a lot in recognition at Fiona’s outbursts and condescension, and at Bagsy’s fake epileptic fit.

You might want apologies and mass hugs at the end, but Getting Better – like life – is fractured in to separate narratives. Only the audience sees all the different pieces.

You don’t know what will happen to any of the people in the play in the long run, though the hopeful side is expressed early on by Mogsy, reassuring Bagsy: “We’re in deep shit. But we’ll be all right.”

Dave Puller, Manchester Playwright - see contact details below