Review: Back to Blackbrick at Arts Theatre

I first discovered Patch of Blue when I was asked to review their show Beans on Toast for LondonTheatre1.com. Initially drawn in by the promised combination of lamp light and live folk music, I wasn’t disappointed, and pretty much fell in love with both the play and the company on the spot.

Back to Blackbrick, Patch of Blue’s new production, has just arrived in London’s West End from Edinburgh, and the company kindly invited me along to see it at the Arts Theatre. I went in with worryingly high expectations – Beans on Toast was the first play I awarded five stars to as a reviewer, so they had a lot to live up to – but it soon became clear I had nothing to worry about. I don’t do star ratings here, as you know, but if I did it’s safe to say we’d be looking at another five…

Based on a novel by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Back to Blackbrick is the story of Cosmo, whose beloved grandad Kevin has Alzheimer’s, and is gradually slipping away from everything and everyone he loves. Still grieving for his brother Brian, who died on his tenth birthday in a tragic accident, and desperate not to lose Grandad too, Cosmo makes him a promise – to go to Blackbrick Abbey… only to find a sixteen-year-old Kevin waiting, and an opportunity to change the events that have brought the family to this point.

Back to Blackbrick

Though the two stories are very different, Back to Blackbrick features many of the same qualities that so appealed to me in Beans on Toast. Both are gently humorous and whimsical, but with the emotional power to reduce you to tears. Both have a cosy fireside storytime feel, and, most significantly, they share a common theme – namely the power of memory, and the fact that even if you’ve lost someone, they’re never really gone as long as the memory of them remains.

I think what I love most about Patch of Blue’s work is that they have a way of drawing the audience in, sharing lives and memories until the characters begin to feel like friends you’ve known for years. Whether it’s Cosmo and Kevin, or Scott and Jen from Beans on Toast, you can’t help but leave the theatre feeling like you’re taking a little piece of them with you (which is also literally true, in a way – but I’ll say no more about that, for fear of spoilers).

Back to Blackbrick

Though various cast members lend their voices, Cosmo is predominantly played by Alex Brain, with the perfect combination of bolshy teenager and terrified, vulnerable child. Grahame Edwards is wonderful as poor, confused Grandad, shuffling around the stage in his pyjamas looking lost and bewildered, while Lloyd Bagley provides a counterpoint as the young Kevin, full of energy and optimism as he faces a future full of exciting opportunities. The first-rate cast is completed by Alexandra Simonet and Elizabeth Grace-Williams, who play the two women in Kevin’s life, both past and present.

But actually, to say the cast is complete isn’t quite true, because they’re joined by London folk band Wovoka Gentle, without whom Back to Blackbrick would be an entirely different show. Their gorgeous folk music is a perfect accompaniment to the nostalgic wistfulness of the story, and I’ll definitely be checking them out very soon in their own right.

Back to Blackbrick takes a family-friendly story with an important message (the original novel aimed to educate young adults on the effects of Alzheimer’s), and adapts it beautifully. Full of humour and Irish charm, the play nonetheless packs quite an emotional punch; the cast aren’t the only ones in tears by the time the story reaches its moving conclusion.

I’m so looking forward to seeing what this exciting emerging company do next – based on what I’ve seen so far, it’ll be amazing.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

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