Catherine Johnson's new play Suspension ushers in a new era for the oldest working theatre in the country, and a sense of real community resolve pervades the theatre; leading to the commendable use of local and homegrown talent in the cast and in Bristol born and bred director Heather Williams. In fact all of the actors in Suspension are either from Bristol, live in the city or have been trained by its theatre school.
Fittingly enough the focus for Johnson's play is Bristol's most famous landmark - a bridge of both searing ambition and Victorian beauty but also in contemporary times a place that holds a darker meaning in the minds of many Bristolians.
When two Bristolian fathers, Gerry (a passionate James Lailey) and Dean (a brilliantly fragile Stuart McLoughlin), collide on the bridge, Gerry saves Dean from plunging to his death after the young man tries to take his own life. With them both being estranged from their respective children they form an unlikely partnership on the bridge with Gerry keen to attract the attention of his unwilling daughter Jemma (April Pearson), who is getting married that day at the overlooking Avon Gorge Hotel, with a large Fathers4justice type banner.
Making both characters detached from their families allows Johnson to pitch male gestural impotence against female anxiety as the scenes from the bridge are intercut with Jemma and Gerry's ex-wife Anita's (a wonderful Louise Plowright) scenes back in the hotel. Jemma's anxiety over her impending marriage to Martin mirrors Anita's more farcical plot to hide from her daughter her father's dramatic display on the bridge. Meanwhile Dean's tragic modern male impotence is underlined when he admits to Gerry the reason for his suicide attempt is his inability in expressing verbally his need to see his son: “I haven't got the words”.
Johnson catches well the British spirit of making light of seemingly tragic situations as an embittered Anita attempts to talk down a resolute Gerry from his dangerous protest without using the police loudhailer: "I'll shout out to him - he's used to it."
All the humour in the production is sucked out by the end, however, as comedy melts into tragedy, to disappointingly stunted effect. The aim is perhaps to remind us of the fragility of existence, but doesn't befit the dramatic establishment and leaves a rather sour taste. Without giving any spoilers, it would be nice have seen the characters forced to make more interesting decisions, without the obvious layer of dramatic catharis provided by a convenient confessional scene.
- Justin Palmer