Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 22: Lucy Gannon’s Keeping Tom Nice (1988)
There are several plays about families that include a disabled child. Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg focuses on the effect the child has on the parents’ marriage while Terence Frisby’s Rough Justice explores the fall-out from the death of a brain-damaged baby at the hands of the parents. Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now gives more voice to the child in its focus on a father-son relationship and how they help and care for each other. Keeping Tom Nice, first performed by the RSC at the Almeida, explores the strain that a 24 year old disabled son has on his family and how his sister and a social worker want to improve his life. However, the play also finds a way to give Tom a voice, whether he can be heard by those around him or whether we can only hear his internal thoughts.
Doug and Winnie devote their days to doing everything they can to keeping Tom nice. Now retired they have given up holidays, evenings out and hobbies in exchange for the tedious routine of lifting, bathing, feeding him mush, flannelling his face and emptying his colostomy bag. But it’s begun to take its toll; Doug can’t seem to stop himself from sporadically attacking Tom. Then there’s younger daughter Charlie who has gone to university as a consolation for Tom not being able to go. However, her parents would prefer to keep her interaction with her brother to a minimum as so not to upset him.
Realism isn’t the key to Keeping Tom Nice. Gannon stipulates that there should be a bare playing area with minimal use of furniture and only necessary props, with the area behind it a space where actors can stand and observe. This contributes to the effect that Doug and Winnie’s lives are about maintaining a veneer. They make sure that the vase is carefully and specifically placed, that Tom’s wheelchair is precisely in the same place each day, that the garden is neatly mowed and de-weeded, and that there’s a fresh cloud of lemon air freshener to welcome the social worker. But behind all of that, they are barely coping and there’s some brutally honest and raw (even poetic at times) bits of writing. Gannon, in scenes called discords where characters aren’t necessarily talking to each other but saying the same clichés and bits of conversation that they’ve been saying for years, evokes the mundanity of routine and how their duty of care is restricting Tom’s wellbeing and their own just as the air freshener chokes the visitors.
In an author’s note, Gannon says that she wanted to write about a normal or even intellectually inferior disabled person rather than one who triumphs in the face of adversity. She didn’t want to write a character that people looked on as this extraordinary person with a genius mind but one who deserves the same amount of care even if he doesn’t offer much in return. I can understand why, but the problem in doing this, I feel, is that it limits the character of Tom. Even when we hear him, it still doesn’t offer much insight to his mind which confines how we see him. It is only Charlie, it seems, who reaches out to Tom as a human being laughing and joking with him – but Charlie being close to him turns problematic too.
Keeping Tom Nice is a sturdy portrait of a family struggling to cope under gruelling circumstances. Its tragic end perhaps comes with the relief that Tom’s life might then improve in that he will see more of the world.