By Milan Perera, Deputy Editor
‘Vulnerable Voices’ is the third joint project in eight months for the power couple of the Bristol art scene, Owen B Lewis and George Harold Millman.
Adapted from Lewis’ second novel of the same title, the story is set in the north of England in the shadow of Conservative austerity measures and the industrial depletion engineered under the Thatcher government.
‘Vulnerable Voices’ is a thought-provoking and poignant play that delves deep into the life of an 18-year-old man, Ellis and his transformative journey.
After being dumped by his girlfriend (played by Roisin Hamilton), Ellis finds fulfilment in the unlikeliest of places: a centre for people with learning disabilities. Against the backdrop of bleak circumstances, this production expertly weaves together themes of self-discovery, the stigma attached to mental health and queer love, creating a compelling and emotionally charged narrative.
The play revolves around the protagonist Ellis (played by Walter Hall) who volunteers at a centre for people with learning disabilities, an environment that initially appears mundane and unremarkable. However, as the story unfolds, we witness a profound change within the young man as he begins to question societal norms and explore his own identity. This exploration encompasses both his hitherto dormant social conscience and the discovery of his sexual orientation, as he unexpectedly falls in love with another man who works at the centre, Nathan (played by David Bourne).
The strength of ‘Vulnerable Voices’ lies in its ability to portray the emotional and psychological turmoil faced by the protagonists. The writing is both sensitive and nuanced, capturing the inner struggles and triumphs that accompany the process of self-acceptance. The themes of mental health and sexuality are delicately intertwined, offering a refreshing perspective that challenges societal expectations.
The performances in this production are exceptional, not just from the lead actors portraying Ellis and Nathan, but from the entire cast, which includes actors with disabilities. The inclusion of disabled actors never felt forced or out of place but added a vital layer of authenticity to the play. The performances are captivating and authentic, allowing the audience to empathise with each person’s journey. The chemistry between the two male leads is palpable, creating a heartfelt and genuine portrayal of queer love.
It also shed some important light on how people with mental health issues are overlooked, even at an establishment driven by the goodwill of volunteers. Nathan, who suffers from mental health issues, devoted many an hour to the centre, yet in spite of his dedication the administration displays a thinly veiled contempt towards his struggles with mental health.
The play's setting against the backdrop of Conservative budget cuts adds to the production's social commentary. It serves as a reminder of the harsh realities faced by communities in the north of England and how these challenges can impact every facet of life, including being true to oneself. The script does a commendable job of balancing this political aspect without overpowering the central themes of the play. The political themes are carefully woven into the play rather than trying to sound like a recitation of ‘The Communist Manifesto’.
Whilst ‘Vulnerable Voices’ is a powerful and moving experience, there are moments where the pacing feels slightly uneven due to multiple set changes. However, this minor detail is negligible as the compelling narrative and strong performances never fails to move audiences.
In conclusion, ‘Vulnerable Voices’ is a brave and thought-provoking play that tackles multiple themes with sincerity and depth. It is a testament to the power of theatre in challenging societal norms and shedding light on the struggles faced by individuals and communities. If one is seeking a play that will ignite introspection, ‘Vulnerable Voices’ fits the bill.
Will you be watching 'Vulnerable Voices'?