A bloodied policeman inches closer to the edge of Beachy Head’s cliffs after witnessing one horror too many. The only thing stopping him going any further is the interference of a strange older woman, armed with a pet carrier and some fig rolls. As night begins to fall, a storm rolls in.
Can I Help You? is the late Philip Osment’s last play, directed by his long-time collaborator Jim Pope. Produced by their company Playing On, its subject is the intersection of race and gender in matters of mental health, suicide and institutional psychiatric support, prompted by their community engagement in the area.
Swept into flashbacks (within flashbacks, at times), the pair develop a complicated mutual compassion that shows a way to weather cycles of familial trauma.
Playing with understated strength across races and ages, Gabriel Vick and Susan Aderin make an appealing pair. As tight-jawed Francis, Vick is at first vicious then desperate and remonstrating as Aderin’s bright, devout Fifi displays the kind of complicated fantasies he’s seen before.
The production makes full use of designer Sue Mayes’ shining gravel slope, but other technical aspects feel a bit unfortunately literal.
Osment’s humour is warm and easy, and this central relationship has a warm camaraderie, in spite of the character’s hot-button differences of opinion. There are some very dark rug-pulls that Pope’s production bounds over frustratingly quickly, but despite these contrivances and an uneasily uneven resolution for its characters, the play’s earnestness wins out.