By Laura Watts
A pair of siblings breaks into a long-abandoned house and stumble across 12 year old Dom (Jordan Holloway) who is dealing with the physical loss of his father to a plane crash and the emotional loss of his mother to mental illness. Dom is followed by a shadow, a black morph suit clad Daley King, who mimics his movements and occasionally serves as a vessel by which the oft silent Dom’s emotions are expressed. What follows is the story of Dom’s attempts to bring back his father from the dead via a “loophole” that can apparently be generated by the successful winning of two out of three games played with the outspoken sister (Violette Ayad) and her mellow, guitar playing brother (Sam Stopforth). Using a combination of shadow play, puppetry and audience participation, the production seeks to explore themes of childhood, mental illness, loss and the wonders of the imagination.
The death of Dom’s father is well described when the shadow figure flies a Lego plane around the darkened room, and subsequently crashes it, to the sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning. Simultaneously, a silhouetted man on a hand held radio portrays a captain trying to steady the doomed plane. The effectiveness of this scene is countered by the following, in which Dom runs around the dimly lit stage playing with his Lego, the shadow figure knocks over a few objects, and nothing of significance happens for rather a long time.
Cue the siblings arriving on the set and Dom scrambling to hide motionless under a sleeping bag. Upon first encounter, the pair seems to be nothing more than argumentative teens with a rebellious streak. Ayad is fiery and feisty, while Stepforth is more the laid back, surfer type, going along with his sister’s plans to explore the abandoned house. However over the course of the play, their roles become a lot more convoluted and difficult to pin down. In later scenes, Ayad introduces the audience members to Dom as ‘souls in limbo’ and begins interacting with them via audience participation games, while Steforth’s concurrent remarks seem to indicate that she had cooperated with ghosts previously. It seems as though the pair serve a kind of spiritual, other-worldly purpose, but the purpose never becomes clear, and dissolves even more into confusion during the final scenes where the dialogue negates the previous actions of characters in the play. When viewing these scenes in the context of the performance description, it is unclear whether the interactions with the otherworld are indeed real or imaginary. On his Pozible crowdfunding page, King states that the play seeks to ‘explore the idea of losing one of your parents to the shadowy figure, and what a confrontation with Death (and all her friends) might entail, in the quest to bring that parent back’. Does this suggest that Ayad plays Death, and if so, why is she visible to Dom? What purpose does her brother serve? Has she, and the beings in limbo, just been imagined by a despondent Dom, or is she real and merely an excellent actress, able to convince the lonely boy that she has higher powers?
Another end left loose is the story of the shadow figure. As the siblings enter and before Dom is discovered hiding, the shadow figure acts as a playful poltergeist, scaring Stepforth by pulling his hair and plucking his guitar strings, and it seems that duo is unable to see the ‘ghost’. However in the following dialogue, Ayad points to the now visible ‘ghost’ and calls it a shadow, and the confusion about the actual identity and purpose of the shadow figure begins. At first it appears as though the shadow figure is going to represent the spirit of Dom’s father, which would explain the fact it is able to move independently from Dom himself or chose to follow him, but Ayad’s announcement that it is in fact a regular shadow makes little sense given the shadow’s previous activities.
Dom’s dialogue and journey really begin once the siblings have arrived. Jordan Holloway is obviously a very talented young actor, however he fails to convince as a 12 year old boy. His ability to reason, rationalise and to be deeply introspective is far beyond his 12 years, which is a fault more of the script than of his ability. Perhaps if Dom had been 14 or 15, his words and interactions would have seemed more appropriate. Alongside Ayad, Holloway delivers the only emotionally charged scene in the play. Given the title and theme of the play, it is a curious that there was not more of an exploration of grief. Again, there is a lot of potential here but the moments which could have been poignant and beautiful are replaced instead with a series of interactive games that don’t quite fit the mood of the rest of the performance.
This is an interesting premise with so many opportunities for real impact and raw emotion, but with just as many loose ends. With a bit of tweaking, Death Stole My Dad could be a really sincere, challenging and thought provoking play. For now, it remains a little unconvincing.