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The Room Upstairs | Wanstead Fringe

The first of a double bill show by Baloney Theatre Company, The Room Upstairs is a heart-breaking yet incredible one-woman show. Based on her own life, Lani Calvert (writer and performer) explores how an ‘invisible illness’ (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis- ME) affects her mother’s life, and ultimately Lani’s own life.

The set is instantly intriguing, with a bed set up at the front of the room. Between the dim purple lights, the sofas for the audience, and plates of free biscuits everywhere; I was both amused and impressed by the show before it even started.

The show starts on a warm note, with Calvert talking and interacting with her mother. With a rather strong presence, she’s able to fill the room with a one-sided conversation about her upcoming graduation, issues with finishing her dissertation, gossiping about mutual friends and poking fun at the terrible accessibility of places. With a rather exaggerated performance, aided by jokes about herself, a lot of movement and use of hands to express herself, Calvert reminds me of Miranda Hart’s delivery style.

Although, we never see the mother, we’re able to learn about her by the reactions of Lani, and a phone call with a friend using voice overs. The show is self-aware which is quite refreshing, with little jabs at herself and even referring to herself as a “weirdo” and joking about being exaggerated. There was a particularly excellent scene wherein Lani explored the relationship between her, her brain and her body, resulting in an absolutely hilarious conversation between the three.

The three are differentiated using various accents and props (three tripods with objects attached to the top; a sponge for the brain, a bottle for the body, and a spoon for her). It’s an especially relatable moment when her body is hungry, her brain is in the middle of an anxious ramble and herself wanting to be productive. Rushing between the three tripods, having a rapid conversation, Calvert smashes the scene and it’s an excellent watch.

Interspersed throughout the show are shorter scenes of movement, accompanied by somber music and voiceovers of diary entries or memories from Lani’s childhood. With the simple yet effective use of spoons to denote herself and her mother (tea and table spoon respectfully), she’s able to weave together deeper moments.

What initially appears to a funny skit, soon turns into a thoughtful reflection of how her mother’s illness slowly came into, and took over their lives, told by a young Lani. The childish perspective on these incidents makes it even more painful to watch, as we’re able to see past this innocence, and grasp the seriousness of the illness. The lighting in these scenes tended to be darker and more pinkish-red, adding to it. These moments are spread out, and are some of the show’s strongest.

The tone change towards the latter when the mother’s ME really comes to light is handled well, with an honest yet brutal argument about attending Lani’s graduation. The show then launches into a split narrative, following both Lani to her graduation and her mother to a doctor’s appointment simultaneously.

This scene submerges the audience into near complete darkness for an extended period of time, and we’re able to hear the mother take the tube (with accurate timings and announcements), and only an occasional comment from Lani about her graduation. This section would have worked if it was much shorter, because I didn’t find listening to the tube announcements from Mile End to Stepney Green and beyond, particularly engaging. However, the built up momentum comes together when we see Lani, in her graduation gown, sitting and celebrating alone with a bright smile.

Overall, the show does exceptionally well at spreading awareness of invisible illnesses, not shying away from harsher truths or about how the illness consumes not only the individual, but also people around them. The humour, use of movement, props and voice overs are completely effective in bringing the show together.

For more information and tickets to Baloney Theatre Company's productions, you can follow the link here.


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