Rum in the Gravy Boat: the impact of an alcoholic parent

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Rum in the Gravy Boat showed at the The Warren venue as part of Brighton Fringe Festival 11-13 May. It was produced by Fluid Motion Theatre Company, a group specializing in mental health. This two-person play was based upon the actor’s own memories of growing up with an alcoholic mother. Review by Emma Robdale.

Leigh Johnstone

Leigh Johnstone in Rum in the Gravy Boat. Photograph courtesy of Fluid Motion Theatre Company

Director of Fluid Motion Theatre, and star of Rum In the Gravy Boat, Leigh Johnstone claims it was his traumatic experiences that pushed him into acting; as a child he often bottled up his own emotions, but relished pretending to be someone different allowing him to vent on the stage. In this autobiographical production there is no disguise, as Johnstone plays his younger self. Johnstone explains:

‘I don’t really have any one memory of how or when this all started. I’ve never made a show about myself before. Never felt the need to, but then again this story is only partly about me… Something happened when I was a child that made life both deeply unbearable and beautifully profound. At the same time a weird alchemy occurred, something good from the bad, and it stirred in me a deep fascination to perform that I just couldn’t shake off.’

The play uses a minimalist set with a square metal frame to represent Johnstone’s bedroom, filled with six boxes and a guitar. Simple props are taken out of the boxes; flat caps, a girl’s wig and a plastic microphone which Johnstone uses to play ‘dress-up games’, each prop aiding a different caricature or persona. All props are returned to the boxes, except Johnstone’s mother’s bottles, which by the end of the play have mounted up on stage.

The hour-long performance is extremely dynamic. Johnstone alternates from talking directly to the audience as an adult, to embodying his younger self by re-enacting memories from his childhood. The first memory is of him and his mother going to an ice-cream shop. He sits on the floor, unable to make up his mind which flavour he wants and his mother, played by the second actor, strokes his head.

This is bittersweet in contrast with later memories of Johnstone cowering in a corner, hands over his ears to shut out his mum and dad’s yelling. Afterwards, he puts his mum into the recovery position when she passes out. In between scenes audio recordings are heard about the effects parental alcoholism can have on children,

“Many children of alcoholic parents end up feeling emotionally unattached. Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.”

Sometimes you’re not sure whether to giggle or gasp with horror. His mother dances to music with a green wine bottle, patting it on the back, pretending it’s a baby. I was laughing unashamedly in one scene where Johnstone rehearses his secondary school part, Danny Zuko in Grease, breaking the fourth wall by flirting with audience members. It was all quite jovial, but the stage stiffens when his mother approaches singing along to Grease. Moments later she screams at him: “You’re a little Twat. You’re a stupid little man, just like your Father.”

Leigh echoes these words by insulting his teddy bear. There are lighter moments of him playing on his own, pretending to be a wrestler, or playing with his toys, and then he will suddenly start insulting himself and end in a foetal position. The way humorous scenes suddenly turn bitter, reflects his mother’s unpredictable moods.

Bringing you away from the dark main storyline, Johnstone and his mother often step out of character to perform profound songs and short sketches. At one point they mimic a scene from a cookery show and mime making pea-soup with a swirl of cream. Both actors explain the cookery process in caricatural high-class accents. But when Johnstone steps back into playing himself, he reveals that his mum didn’t make dinner that night. The comedy in the quirky sketches and songs stand in stark contrast to Johnstone’s harsh reality.

Towards the end the recordings playing between scenes become darker:

“Her mouth is droopy swollen and lifeless, but this is only on a bad day. My biggest fear is Mum not waking up.”

Members of the audience were reduced to tears when Johnstone played the real soundtrack of his mother speaking of her own alcoholism; how it started when she was unable to cope looking after her three children alone. She speaks of her feelings about her son’s writing:

“I’m proud of him, and I’m proud of what he’s achieved, and it’s made me and others aware of how having an alcoholic parent affects children.”

Johnstone tells the audience that his mother is now a recovering alcoholic. The emotion peaked when he revealed, that for the first time, his mother was in the audience watching the play with us.

Visit Fluid Motion Theatre Company’s website for more information about their work and future tour dates.

Watch the trailer for Rum in the Gravy Boat below: