Jim Pope directs Philip Osment’s final play Can I Help You? at The Omnibus Theatre this spring. This world premiere is presented by Playing ON co-founded by Philip Osment.

Susan Aderin (Guerrilla, Sky Atlantic; Peer Gynt, National Theatre) will appear as Fifi alongside Gabriel Vick (Les Misérables, BBC; Once, West End) as Francis in this poetic and uplifting examination of how race and gender intersect with issues of mental health.

Can I Help You? Is at Omnibus Theatre 3rd – 21st March 2020.

Can I Help You? is coming to North Wall and Omnibus Theatre, what can you tell us about it?

The play itself is a poetic examination of the role authority, race and gender have to play in mental health and suicide. An off-duty English policeman is about to throw himself off Beachy Head when he is met by a British Ghanaian woman carrying a laundry bag and a cat box. Over the course of one night, two characters learn what it truly means to be touched by the magic of hope.  It is an incredible piece of theatre with two actors taking us on an epic journey, which is funny and moving in equal measure.  At just over an hour it races along but feels as though several lifetimes have been lived through.  Netflix it ain’t!

The research for the play came from our innovative approach to theatre, which we have been delivering in clinical and community mental health settings since 2011.  By bringing NHS professionals and those with lived experience of mental illness together, we use theatre to help disparate groups explore issues they have in common. As such we are delivering various wraparound activities during the course of the run to share our theatre practice with those who wish to learn.  We have been performing the play, delivering theatre workshops and joining panel discussions at conferences, in hospitals, wellbeing centres and universities.

Philip Osment was the co-founder of Playing ON, how does it feel to direct his final play?

Sadly, Philip died in May last year.  It is very comforting to have such a typically rich script from him, with so much for the actors to get stuck into.  We were both influenced by our times working with renowned director Mike Alfreds and we had a similar approach to directing.  Our emphasis has always been on actor-led theatre, which makes the most of the performer’s skill to convey the script, without needing fancy tricks.  This makes rehearsals and performances really exciting as new discoveries are made with every performance. Mike would always liken it to cooking a fresh meal every night rather than heating something up in a microwave.

Why do you think it’s so important to be staging this play now?

People in society are leading more isolated lives and political events have created more division than ever before.  Suicide figures among men are through the roof.  Racial tension is rising and there is much confusion about the politics of identity.  It is still the case, however, that mental illness is seen as a form of weakness and conversations about it are not encouraged.

During rehearsals of a particularly noisy scene, we were interrupted by two policewomen who had been called by a neighbour to investigate. They were delighted that it was a false alarm and even more interested when they discovered it was about a policeman considering suicide.  They both told us that if a constable is involved in a particularly violent or upsetting incident, they are very much expected to tough it out and carry on without making a fuss.  At the same time, they had colleagues who had burned out and left the force due to stress and anxiety. I think this is a real cause for concern in this day and age.

The stigmatisation of mental illness is a problem and theatre is a powerful way of exploring its complexities.  Through stories and entertainment, we can have conversations we would otherwise not have and realise we are not alone.  The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health & Wellbeing Inquiry Report 2017 (APPG) stated that, after engaging with the arts 82% enjoyed greater well-being.

What do you think it is about his writing that appeals so much to audiences?

Philip’s writing is incredibly true to the complexities of the human condition.  He captures the crushing disappointment in people’s lives at the same time as honouring their enormous warmth and capacity for love.  His plays can make you laugh and cry at the same time in a way that no other writer does.  As a gay man from a working-class rural environment, who went to Oxford University without any of the typical support structures, he was extremely in tune with the feelings of being an outsider. His plays never polarise characters into good and bad but emphasise the need for compassion. At the same time, they are profoundly political and often consider kindness and taking care of one’s self as an act of courage.

The black American civil rights activist Audre Lorde summed this up when she said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

What will be the biggest challenge for you as director with this play?

For me the biggest challenge has yet to come.  Although there is a bit of pressure with honouring Philip’s last work, it really does feel like he is in the room with me supporting the process.  I can even tell when he disapproves of a decision I make.  There was a certain look he used to give!  Friends and colleagues have asked how I am doing as it is so recently that he died.  The biggest challenge for me, however, will be when the run finishes.

I think that in the way it often takes time for it to sink in that a person has really gone, it will take time to sink in that there will never be another Philip Osment script. He was as Mike Alfreds says in his book, Different Every Night, “the greatest collaborator.”  To me he was also a teacher, mentor, therapist and so many other things and he will be with me in every creative space I ever enter.  He was also a friend and I miss him very much.

What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see Can I Help You?

Don’t just think about it.  Do it.  Buy a ticket.  This is a genuinely theatrical experience.  You will laugh and be amazed.  There may also be a few tears but ultimately there is hope. Can I Help You? is cathartic in the true sense of the word.

Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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