The creation of Up Down Man

As Up Down Man starts its second week of rehearsals, Artistic Director of Myrtle Theatre Company Heather Williams, who also plays Odette in the production, explains more about the development of the play.

Nathan Bessell and Heather Williams in Up Down Boy at Salisbury Playhouse. Credit Richard Davenport..jpg

Heather Williams and Nathan Bessell in Up Down Boy ©Richard Davenport 2012.

Whilst Up Down Boy was largely autobiographical written from the mother’s perspective, we saw the sequel, Up Down Man, as an opportunity to create a piece of theatre that put the character of the son, Matty, and his thoughts and feelings at the centre of the play. To that end we placed Nathan Bessell (who plays Matty) at the heart of the creative process from the outset. We wanted to build on our learning through the development and performance of Up Down Boy, to work in a way that fully embraced and benefited from Nathan’s inspiring creative method.

An initial research and development period included a week in the rehearsal room at Salisbury Playhouse in July 2014. Six actors, a choreographer, a designer, a lighting designer and a composer were present. Nathan was encouraged to lead the process at every opportunity – from taking physical warm-ups, to guiding improvised scenes, choosing characters for the actors to play and deciding on scene content. The result was a freedom to create and play, rarely experienced by the actors – and a great deal of joy in the room. Also present was writer Brendan Murray who, through formal and informal interaction with Nathan and observation of the work, was able to get to the heart of some of the themes and theatrical conventions Nathan wanted to include in the play.

It also became very clear that Nathan’s greatest desire was to “speak” through his body – that dance and movement gave him the opportunity to communicate with depth and profundity in a way that he finds challenging with the spoken word.

It was thrilling to see how the time and extra resources allowed Nathan to express himself in a way we didn’t think possible. The speed he developed as a creative artist was remarkable.

We identified three areas of further research and development which took place throughout 2015.

Brendan, Nathan and I embarked on a rather unusual, but highly successful script development period – Nathan took us to the places he liked going – the funfair, the pub, cafes, restaurants, bowling, the sea life centre, country walks – giving Brendan an invaluable insight into his life.

We decided that for Nathan to truly have a voice in the play’s material the best way was through dance and he would benefit from broadening his dance vocabulary to do this. He had sessions with five exceptional young dancer/choreographer/movement artists, developing his skills in contemporary dance, street dance, ballet, line dancing, ballroom dancing and contact improvisation. Nathan relished these sessions but more importantly showed astonishing alacrity in learning new skills and techniques and new ways of moving and expressing himself. He particularly embraced dancing with someone else – to be in duologue, rather than monologue. It became apparent that to have another dancer to work alongside Nathan in Up Down Man would be creatively beneficial. Nathan was involved in selecting who that would be – dancer and choreographer Bryn Thomas. In addition, Nathan had sessions with two composers and it soon became clear he flourished when dancing to live music which also allowed for improvisational elements in the dance. Through this we decided it was essential to have live music for Up Down Man and this is composed and performed by Kieran Buckeridge.

The third area of research and development was Brendan interviewing Sue, Nathan’s mother, and the rest of his family, along with a number of other families to place Nathan’s creative input into a context.

As we begin the second week of rehearsals, the blend of Brendan’s sharp, witty and beautifully crafted text, coming together with Nathan’s moving and amusing extraordinary dance interludes is extremely exciting.

Up Down Man runs in The Salberg at Salisbury Playhouse from Wednesday 24 February to Saturday 12 March 2016. For tickets or more information please contact the Ticket Office on 01722 320333 or visit


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