In Canoe, a couple are faced with that most awful of tragedies: the death of their children in an accident. But David and Tom have to face it publicly. David is a successful author of books for children – and many people dislike that this same-sex couple have children, or that they were born through surrogacy.
The couple react to this tragedy with starkly different responses. David can only see the censure, from those that would deny him and Tom the right to have children at all. The negative reactions serve to feed his self-hatred and guilt for sending the children on an outdoor adventure holiday. He can’t look at the kindness in the cards and letters from friends and fans – which to me, seems a more understandable reaction than Tom’s almost preternatural calm.
Playwright Matthew Roberts also performs all the roles, and is superb. His characterisations are pin-sharp – in particular as the intensely likeable David, around whom most of the play is centred, a gruff but open-minded and open-hearted Yorkshireman. A younger Ian McMillan, if you will.
The movement in this play, directed by Struan Leslie, is a real highlight. As Roberts segues between characters during dialogues he not only switches roles but also builds an intimacy between them – even though you can only see one side of it at any time. The interchanges between David and their adopted older son Andrew, who is carrying his own baby, are just perfect.
There is a lot to fit into this play: a lot of serious issues around what constitutes a family, how we behave to each other online, and deep, deep grief. Sometimes it feels like that simple grief and loss is being obscured by the issues – like the polemical aspects to the play are overwhelming the human – though of course, that is partly the point. David and Tom can’t be left just to grieve in private, because they are gay, and questions are being raised over their right to parenthood.
Canoe is also a love letter to children’s literature. While remaining in character, Roberts reads from classic stories such as The Water Babies, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden, while references to Eugene Field’s poem ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod’ become a recurring motif. He brings these stories wonderfully to life, pulling out the meanings – the sometimes surprising meanings – that they have had on the family’s lives. The play itself is in verse form, and in many places this gives a great punchiness to the text, though there are occasional moments where a rhyme seems too trite for the moment at hand.
This is not the easiest watch: the subject matter is distressing and difficult, and there is much sadness and anger in the production. But there is also so much love, and fierce pride in that love, and a recognition of how it has shaped them and made their lives meaningful.