**** (4 stars)
Julia Hales is 38. She has been watching Australian soap Home and Away since she was a little girl, and in all that time she’s never seen anyone in the cast who, like her, has Down’s syndrome. She tells us of her life and her family and the many parallels she can see between them and the characters in the show.
Mixed in with her narrative are short films about and interviews with friends of hers who also have Down’s syndrome, in which they celebrate their achievements and talk about their hopes, dreams and life experience. We also get some factual information about how people with Down’s syndrome were treated in the past and, shockingly, how pregnant women today are still being encouraged to consider aborting a child which might have, or has been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. [And should you google Down’s Syndrome, as I did, all the information is negative …]
It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a lot of humour – doubtless still more if, unlike me, you are familiar with the characters and story lines of Home and Away. There’s some clever involvement of audience members who are invited on stage to play characters in the storyline that Julia is writing for Clare, a character with Down’s syndrome whom she wants to see in the soap.
There should have been a cast of seven on stage, but at tonight’s performance only Julia and her friend Joshua Bott were physically present alongside the incredible BSL signer Amy Cheskin and Ian “Moopa” Wilkes, the show’s Movement Director, as the versatile and enormously supportive “back up guy”.
This message was sent out prior to the show:
“The team of You Know We Belong Together are all from Western Australia, we were planning on making the long-haul trip to Edinburgh for the festival back in 2020 and then again in 2021…but plans changed due to the you know what…
So, you can imagine how incredibly thrilled we all are to be here in Edinburgh now. And then, sadly, Covid struck our team…in the words of Alf Stewart from Home and Away FLAMING HECK!! The team have pulled together and tonight you will see You Know We Belong Together with not 7 cast members but 2. We have made sure that you still meet all of our cast on the big screen, as they continue to share their art and their passions with you. The fact that this show can go on – after all the years and all of the miles – is a great testament to the strength, resilience and creativity of these artists with Down’s syndrome. Inspiring stuff. We hope you enjoy You Know We Belong Together and join us in wishing the rest of our team a swift and full recovery.”
Given those challenging conditions, it was pretty remarkable that any show was put on: so full credit to Julia for carrying on without the supporting physical presence of most of the cast – and even more credit to Julia for writing the show in the first place and giving a voice to people who so often are overlooked, have decisions made for them, or are patronised.
On film we meet the absent cast members. Lauren Marchbanks goes by train to Perth [Western Australia!] station and dances on the platform to the music from her headphones. Tina Fielding has an alter ego – Sparkles, who really lives up to her name; Joshua Bott is a dancer; and Patrick Carter is an artist. Some of her friends respond to Julia’s questions What does love mean to you? Do you think love is sad and happy? When was the first time you fell in love? When did you break up with someone? and we are reminded that everyone wants to find love, acceptance and friendship, regardless of their disability or ability. We also see that strength, resilience and creativity referenced in the show team’s message!
You Know We Belong Together was an interesting mix of reality and fantasy which came together in the final moments, when Julia was welcomed to Summer Bay by the famous Alf Stewart – yes, it really is Home! There was good contrast between the ‘real’ Julia and her character Clare: and hats off to the ‘mum’, ‘dad’ and ‘handsome young man’ who played their [scripted] parts in Claire’s narrative. The film clips introduced us to the absent cast members and gave us some insight into the joys and challenges of living with Down’s. Hats off to Julia Hales and the creative team at Black Swan State Theatre Company for bringing us this show, which both entertains us and reminds us that we are all looking for love, acceptance, and a happy ending.
Sadly, the auditorium was not full – it’s a show that needs and deserves a wider audience than it received tonight – but those of us who were there enjoyed it immensely.
Edinburgh International Festival, you know we belong together, Lyceum Theatre, Run Ended.