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Every One review at Battersea Arts Centre, London – ‘devastating’

Angela Clerkin and Michael Fenton Stevens i Every One at Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: Richard Davenport Angela Clerkin and Michael Fenton Stevens i Every One at Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: Richard Davenport

Jo Clifford and Chris Goode, perhaps the country’s two most radically empathetic artists, come together to give Clifford’s impossibly painful play its English premiere.

Every One may take a shade of inspiration from the late-medieval Everyman, but its real tributaries are more far personal, chiefly the death of Clifford’s wife from a brain tumour in 2006. Shorn of its allegorical trappings, the story of one man’s journey to a Christian salvation becomes an ordinary death in an ‘ordinary’ family. A mum, a dad, two kids, debts, ironing, happiness, a stroke, and then a parting.

Clifford’s play introduces us to the family slowly. Their lives of video games, chores, love and gently thwarted ambitions are laid out in light, economical direct-address. Mother Mary and father Joe, slyly named, are muddling along fine, their children Mazz and Kevin seem fine too.

Then one day Mary feels something perched on her shoulder, like a malevolent elemental, and a few hours later she’s dead. Then she floats, chats with Death, considers her family, her short life. The play pauses, suspended in that unbearable moment of loss, as times swirls back and forth between the death camps of the holocaust, the futures of Mary’s children.

Goode’s production is deceptively simple, channeling some of the everyday rhythms he played with in Stand and Monkey Bars, treating Clifford’s script more like verbatim than the mildly heightened text would seem to demand. It’s powerfully effective, an updating of the pull and push, the distanced and the universal, which activated its morality play original. Where Rufus Norris’s 2015 Everyman at the National Theatre relied on banks of video walls and cocaine snorting neon dancers to prove its modernity, Goode and Clifford’s version quietly, insistently places itself in the today.

Against the grain of much of their best known work, from Clifford’s magnificent The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven to Goode’s work with queer boyband renegades Ponyboy Curtis, the family at the centre of Every One are resolutely heteronormative, practically nuclear. And in many ways that becomes perhaps the most radical gesture of all.

Because though it is the explosion in Mary’s brain is the tragedy which strikes this family, Clifford’s play understands it as one of a community of human tragedies which extend from the chance attacks of disease and natural disasters, to the twining, man-made death engines of industrial capitalism and patriarchy. In the medieval iconography Clifford borrows, they are both of the Grim Reaper’s realm, but in the real world, of real families and real deaths, though they may not share a common cause, they demand a common cure: kindness, care and solidarity.

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Slippery but devastating collaboration between two of the country’s most radically empathetic artists