by Joely Santa Cruz
In his new play titled The Ladder, Shȏn Dale Jones explores how our individual and collective choices are influenced through both the stories we choose to tell and the ones we decide to guard.
Nothing Fills a Hole Like a Double Decker: 31 years ago, the City Centre end of Earlham Road imploded after the ancient chalk mine beneath it collapsed in on itself, dragging a Number 26 bus into the hole that it created. Jones begins his performance by questioning the collective inaction and wilful ignorance that propels us into our own holes in the road.
The Ladder premiered at The Playhouse in May 2019 as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Written by Shȏn Dale Jones, Stefanie Müller and Julian Spooner, it revisits Jones’ stage character Hugh Hughes (Jones), as he explores the life and untimely death of his father Daniel (Spooner). As Daniel falls backwards from the top of a ladder in a church belfry, his life flashes before his eyes. We are drawn into his memories, which are painted in a series of described images (a dragonfly, the green and black tiles of the family shop floor), interspersed with discussions between father and son.
As Daniel describes these events, set against a shifting background of Thatcherite Wales and modernising society, it is often down to his son Hugh to prompt him into any kind of discussion or reflection.
The human pain of change is tangible at the heart of Daniel Hughes’ metaphorical descent. Raised on the Welsh island of Anglesey, his emotionally repressed stoicism cascades into a series of regrets fuelled by unspoken fears and growing anger. He is part of the close-knit and remote community, but he is also an outsider whose father’s absence casts a shadow over many of the life events which make it into his final show-reel. As Daniel describes these events, set against a shifting background of Thatcherite Wales and modernising society, it is often down to his son Hugh to prompt him into any kind of discussion or reflection.
And so, we join Hugh in his quest to retrospectively get to know the man who eluded him when he was alive. Writers in the past have been acutely aware of the power of the biographer to mould the narrative of their legacy – here too the lines are blurred on Daniel’s own agency within his story. Hugh says he has become “increasingly close to his father since he died,” but perhaps his own obsessions shape the story which unfolds. When Hugh rebukes Daniel for not asking his mother where his father went, or when he rejects attempted reconciliations later in life, we are reminded that Hugh himself has trodden into familiar pitfalls. Hugh is using his platform to create a new space for Daniel, and reconcile with his own regrets.
Ultimately, Daniel became muddled in a world complicated by politics and relationships which he struggled to decode.
The 1988 Earlham bus incident which captured Jones’ imagination ended uneventfully, with the bus driver evacuating all 15 passengers unharmed. The image that remains is the unoccupied bus lurching deeper into a 25ft hole. The idea that events such as these are mostly predictable preoccupies Jones, who referenced the activist Greta Thunberg in his closing dialogue. We have a long history of getting on the bus regardless, but on the route to climate devastation there is little room for walking away untouched. Ultimately, Daniel became muddled in a world complicated by politics and relationships which he struggled to decode. His life ended abruptly when he had a heart attack, caused by a known heart condition for which he neglected to take his prescribed medication. Perhaps that was because he thought he was invincible, or just didn’t care enough about looking after himself in a world which never seemed to care about him. As individuals we have the liberty to make bad decisions, but Jones’ bittersweet portrayal of a somewhat blinkered life with missed opportunities, reminds us to be wary of the narrative we want to weave, and the finality of our choices.
Featured image: mira66 (CC 2.0)
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