YOU – a play about adoption written and directed by adoptees
Review of YOU: the play, VAULT Festival, London, February 2018
When I heard about YOU: the play, there was no question I would be in the audience. I can’t remember ever watching a play solely about adoption, and certainly not one written and directed by adoptees. If I have watched a play about adoption (Blood Brothers in secondary school perhaps?) it was most definitely before coming out of the fog. I was excited and apprehensive to see how my reaction might differ now I know in my bones that adoption means loss.
Presented by Longsight Theatre and directed by Sarah Meadows, the play has won a number of awards. Performed in the round, we had a clear view of the action from all angles and a good view of the rest of the audience. Many audience members were in tears at points in the play and, given the staging and the size of the venue, it was almost impossible to be discreet about this. There was a very powerful feeling in the room and I could feel the weight of all the personal stories we carried as we watched this fictional story unfold.
Two actors Kathryn O’Reilly and Stephen Myott-Meadows played all the characters: Kathryn playing the birth mother, her mother and the adoptive mother; Stephen playing the biological father, the birth mother's father, the adoptive father and the adoptee. The narrative jumped in time over three decades, starting before the adopted person was conceived and ending with him knocking on his birth mother’s door as an adult. The actors were flawless in their quick shifts between characters and decades, changing their posture and expressions and summoning the necessary emotion on stage. I was mesmerised by O'Reilly switching from nervous adoptive mother to numb birth mother and loved the repeating imagery of the frosted window through which each first saw their son.
In this way all the different perspectives were represented and shown as they evolved over time. The adoptee had a small role and did not have many (any?) lines, which I presume was intentional to show the lack of voice and agency that we adoptees have.
The writer Mark Wilson and director Sarah Meadows later told me there was a technical reason for using only two actors to play all the roles in YOU. Mark said it meant the play could flow “like being taken downstream on a raft” without the interruptions of changing cast members. It also served to show we are all interconnected; we are all one – and any one of us could be the army lad, the disappointed mother, the pregnant daughter, etc. This technique worked really well to break down shame and increase empathy. I hope anyone not personally familiar with adoption would leave the play feeling less judgemental and knowing that adoption is not just something that affects other people.
I loved the balance of romance/magic and realism around how the couple met and the baby’s conception. Almost like a crystal ball us adoptees would like to look into to know how their birth parents met, and whether they were in love. (The kind of information non-adoptees probably know and take for granted.) It was also very interesting to contrast this with how the adoptive parents met and to watch their hopes of having a baby drained away and then channelled into a new “project”.
There were themes of shame – running through from the birth mother’s parents’ reaction to her getting pregnant, to her feelings of inadequacy when she received the letter from her adult son. There were also themes of choice, shown, for example, when the baby’s biological grandfather says with grim realisation, “I agreed to it”.
For me there was a harsh reality in the phrase “another woman’s baby”, particularly for many of my generation of adoptees who were brought up being told by their adoptive parents “you’re ours”, “you’re our longed-for child”, “you’re chosen and special”, while the other woman – the other mother – was not acknowledged.
The play covered the answers to many of questions adoptees have about their birth and first few hours or days of life, such as:
· Did you hold me / feed me?
· Did you (get to) say goodbye?
· Have you thought about me since?
The way the reunion was presented was very authentic, with the son receiving a response from his birth mother but not feeling ready to open her letter. As an adoptee in reunion I would have liked to see reunion covered in more depth, but the play is a great introduction to the themes and perspectives around adoption.
After the show we meet the playwright Mark Wilson. An adoptee himself, he said he cried buckets as he wrote the play and when I asked him is this was cathartic, he said yes, but catharsis is ongoing and not something that’s ever “done”.
I am committed to supporting adoptees in telling our stories in any and every way, but particularly in a non-verbal, creative way. Please let me know if you hear of any other projects like this that I can support. And do be sure to watch YOU: the play if/when it comes to a venue near you. I’ll tweet about it as soon as I have any information about new shows and/or a UK tour.