Terry wakes up hungover and banished to the sofa; his girlfriend is out, and the house is infested with ladybirds. It’s also his 27th birthday, and he is older now than than his big brother Danny ever was. He reminisces about his brother, and tries to come to terms with his loss, within a family that seems unable to process their grief and move on.
Danny was a child prodigy concert pianist – pushed and pushed by his father to achieve – who eventually fell apart, and took his own life. As a child Terry idolized his older brother, though it’s clear that his feelings about him became more complex as he started to feel overshadowed and neglected by his parents.
Steve Conlin is a wonderfully warm presence as Terry; he is a bear of a man with a rich voice, portraying a man-child whose emotional growth has been stunted both by tragedy and by living in his brother’s shadow. Hugh Dichmont’s script is a mix of Terry directly addressing the audience, and indirectly commenting on his actions and emotions; there are some lyrical passages, and the metaphor of the ladybirds is nicely worked and enriches the storytelling.
However, there are complexities and inconsistencies that distract from the focus on how Terry is feeling. A sudden twist in the emotions Terry describes is confusing, when a more nuanced approach throughout might have borne dividends. And the other characters seem two-dimensional; Terry’s girlfriend Mina is almost a fantasy figure, supporting him financially (not to mention emotionally), adoring ladybirds, and participating in spectacular if clichéd make-up sex. I also never got to grips with the relationship between Danny and his father. Was it just overly intense, or something more sinister?
The show is in support of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a charity dedicated to the prevention of male suicide – which is an admirable cause, and the play certainly makes a contribution to raising the issues around male depression. However, I wonder about how this association may have impacted on the script. It feels very issue-led, reluctant to let its themes arise naturally out of Terry’s story. And whilst the tragedy of suicide is movingly handled, I wonder if the story might be more effective if the scenario were more everyday, rather than being driven by Danny's rare and exceptional talent.
On the whole though, The War on Terry is a moving and tender piece, sensitively handling topics around depression and suicide in young men – and given life by a commanding central performance.