Play review: The Colours by Harriet Madeley

Categories: Featured and People & Places.
One of the containers featured on the set of the play The Colours.

Stephanie Owens, Senior Communications Officer at Hospice UK reviews ‘The Colours’ which ran at The Soho Theatre in London earlier this month.

Palliative care isn’t what you would normally expect to see in a theatre piece, especially one that is so positive, but that is exactly what Harriet Madeley chose as the topic for her play, The Colours.
Created from interviews with patients and doctors at the Velindre Cancer Centre, Cardiff and Ty Olwen Hospice, Swansea, she puts these together to create the 80-minute piece.

The set is simple. Just containers that are moved around by the actors, filled with smaller containers that are used to represent everyday objects and to use to move the sand that is in the main one. This may sound strange, but it is effective in the beach visualization and cleverly used to place in another, suspended container at the back to the set, tilted to allow the sand to fall, creating a sand timer to represent time running out in the background.It starts with a visualization exercise. Imagine yourself on a beach. A nice touch to immerse you in the action and to calm you for emotional stories to follow.

The title of the play comes from one of these visualisations, which we later learn is part of the hospice’s relaxation sessions, where the patients are asked to imagine different colours.

We are then introduced to Joe and his wife Gill. A refreshingly gender-swapped couple played by Morfydd Clark and Che Francis, but this gender reversal is barely noticed, so emotive are their performances. Initially, we think it is Gill who will get the news of a life-limiting illness, but it turns out to be Joe. We see the couple cope with the news together, polar opposites with Gill being tirelessly positive and Joe being guarded and fearful.

We also meet Erica (Claire-Marie Hall), a woman with a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis. She has no family, but remains hopeful and enjoys her time at the hospice day centre. And Ray (Mark Knightley), a patient with MND and a dry sense of humour. They welcome Joe and the three become friends at Ty Olwen day centre, participating in activities such as painting, meditation, dancing and music to enrich the end of their lives under the care of nurse Kath (Harriet Madeley).

Interspersed with the patient stories are quotes from the nurses and doctors, delivered by the actors whilst doing Tai Chi (another hospice session). This adds a nice division between the patient and clinician dialogues and the use of the gentle movement compliments the reassuring comments about treatment, being in a hospice and the rewarding side of what many see to be a depressing job.

The Colours highlights just how jarring some doctors can be in their delivery of bad news, however, “I don’t know how to tell you this… You have cancer” and the subsequent confusion of the patients as they are bombarded with medical information and the news sinks in, wonderfully depicted by the actors speaking quickly over each other.

What really stands out is the honesty. Not only in the words of the patients that are being delivered by the actors, but in the simple fact that we are not used to death in this society anymore. There was a time where people died younger, died at home and it was spoken about. Now, it is medicalized and hidden.

The Colours also addresses the belief that a hospice is somewhere you go to die, and then knocks this down by showing that it is about living the best you can at the end of life.

It is a play that reassures and makes the subject of death an accessible one. Overall, a strangely uplifting and death-positive piece of theatre.

The Colours ran at Soho Theatre from 30th July – 17th August.


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