Home / Drama / Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong – Cockpit Theatre, London

Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong – Cockpit Theatre, London

Writer: Rahila Gupta

Director: Guy Slater

Reviewer: Harry Stern

[rating:4]

Don't Wake me Jaye Griffiths and  wheelchairTheatre does tragedy. Every day somewhere in the world a King Lear goes mad, Macbeth’s vaulting ambition propels him towards his downfall and countless other tragic figures speed to their inevitable decline. Done well it is genuinely affecting, life-changing even. But when it is the tragedy of a child that is being told and when that tragedy is drawn from real, desperately painful life, theatre has a far greater responsibility. Perversely, the challenge lies in neither cheapening the experience by over-dramatising it, nor undervaluing it by attaching a veneer of theatrical cynicism. In either case, respect would not be paid.

Luckily for us, but inevitably excruciatingly for her, this verse solo-drama was written by the child’s mother. Though marginally stylised by the ballad nature of the writing, Gupta offers an unvarnished account that is played with great truth, sensitivity and tact by the admirable Jaye Griffiths. It is, though, a very difficult experience that left a number of the audience in tears. And no wonder.

Nihal Armstrong was born in 1984 after a difficult birth that ended in a Caesarian section after which he spent nearly a month in a special care baby unit as he struggled for life. From such an inauspicious start his unfolding brief existence was full of a plethora of experience. Some was joyful, much was painful, all of it was magnified in stature by the fact that he was diagnosed as having Cerebral Palsy. Gupta’s efforts to offer him a life that was more than bearable were faced at every turn with equal amounts of institutional ignorance, ineptitude, prejudice and enlightenment. From birth to grave, from hospital to school to courtroom, society’s inability to respond to such a tragedy in a coherent and consistent way seems to have been a hallmark of Nihal’s seventeen years of life.

While Gupta is angry, at times very, very angry, at this uneven response, she has fashioned a love story between herself and her child. It is, of course, intensely personal and the metaphor she chooses to describe their liaison is one of a knot. “Oh my darling my little love./ Tying and untying our bond./ Cannot hold you nor let you go./ Can’t stand and fight nor abscond.” That knot and the mother’s refusal to bow to professional advice, discovers the soul and heart of a sensitive and spirited poet in the misshapen body of her son. Her persistence and faith resulted in a brief flowering of a personality that, too easily, could never have seen the light. That achievement makes the rest of the mother’s testimony bearable. Although it was transient and cruelly short, Nihal’s emergence from the darkness of institutional incompetence was a matter of celebration. Gupta celebrates with joy and with humour. “Disabled and proud, left no room for disabled and pissed off.”

The play is tough on its audience and very tough on the single performer. The technical challenges for Griffiths are huge but the responsibilities are even bigger. She faces up to those responsibilities with great bravery. She does not draw back from the brink. She is tender, angry, forlorn and wickedly funny as the mother accompanies the son through his life while her own life and relationships are put under the most extreme pressure. It isn’t so much of a tour de force performance as an embodiment of incomporable experience. Played on a simple set by Elroy Ashmore and directed with equal amounts of tact by Guy Slater, this is, without doubt, a piece of work that will affect every audience that sees it.

Nor should we cavil about whether it is a story that should be told from the stage. That decision can only belong to the mother who produced both child and the ballad that his life inspired.

Runs until 22nd June then 5-25 August at Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh Fringe Festival

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    Jaye Griffiths is irreplaceable in this unforgettable story of a very special mother-son relationship. The very moving script is based on the personal experiences of its writer Rahila Gupta. It is a story of severe disability, of battles, struggles, challenges and the frustration of being misunderstood. But above all it is the story of a mother’s everlasting love for a very special child- a child who, the audience soon realises, has the perfect combination of intelligence and innocence.

  2. Avatar

    This is such a moving piece of theatre, brilliantly written and executed. It tells a rivetting story through verse which is powerful and accessible. Both my 14 year old son and I hung on every word,finding the story captivating and extremely emotional. Jaye Griffiths’ performance brings out the sadness,humour,and apalling injustice of this story.

  3. Avatar

    I agree with the review wholeheartedly. If truth is to be found anywhere then it must surely be in a mother’s profound endeavour to enable her child to find fulfilment, joy and meaning in life. Make sure you have a pack of tissues with you when you go to see this play because it’s defintely going to touch your emotions.

  4. Avatar

    I didn’t think a seventy minute monologue would be the most moving theatrical performance I have seen in my adult life, but it was. Friends who saw the publicity thought it might be depressing, but it was actually uplifting. This was not because it had a happy ending, but because it was so full of compassion and the warmth of human relationships against the odds. Go – you will not be sorry you went.

  5. Avatar
    Peter Jefferies

    A beautifully written and superbly acted play. The poetry and poignancy of Rahila Gupta’s text positively sings and Jaye Griffiths performance transforms that text into a sustained and brilliant roller coaster of emotion. One of the most moving theatrical experiences I have witnessed for many a year. I really cannot recommend it more highly.

  6. Avatar

    Extremely moving and inspiring play giving an insight into women’s strength and the latent abilities of an individual. Very thoughtfully and sometimes with gentle humor it shows what a mother will/can confront and challenge (at a personal and institutional level)to bring out the hidden/ unacknowledged by the world Nihal, her son. Jay Griffiths moves one to tears with her outstanding performance.

  7. Avatar

    Must draw your attention to a simply stunning production currently – Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong – now at The Cockpit Theatre in London. Press night last night and 4 star review in the Evening Standard. Rahila Gupta has written this extraordinary and deeply moving piece about the short but inspiring life of her son, Nihal. In just over an hour, in a brilliant tour de force, actress Jaye Griffiths moved the audience to tears and then a standing ovation. Quite the most unforgettable piece of theatre I have seen in months, and a telling comment not only on how our society deals with disability, but also a triumphant re-affirmation of the value of life.