Don’t Wake Me
4 stars ****
Gilded Balloon (Venue 14)
IF ONE of the key roles of the Fringe is to offer a voice to those who often go unheard, then Rahila Gupta’s passionate blank-verse monologue, based on the true story of a mother’s fight to have her severely disabled son valued and accepted by society, fulfils that aim to perfection. Subtitled The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong, Gupta’s 60-minute play – performed with stunning grace and eloquence by Jaye Griffiths – offers a fierce insight into the many practical problems faced by Nihal and his family, after he is struck by cerebral palsy during a difficult birth. Nihal’s mother is unsparing in her view of the medical establishment, of an education system that often has hopelessly fixed ideas about what disabled people can achieve, and of those who simply walk away; Nihal’s father cannot stand the strain, and eventually leaves him, his mother and his younger sister to cope alone.
What’s striking about the play, though, is that while it is in part a document of the social and practical problems faced by people with disabilities and their families, it also moves along on a tide of mighty poetry, like a great love song from the mother to her beautiful and brilliant boy, whose increasingly broken body contains such a passionate and intelligent mind. Nihal is, in that sense, the love of his mother’s life; and although by the end of this heart-stopping play the boy himself has gone, the powerful intertwining of their lives continues, as she sings out her truth about what was, what might have been, and what still lives with her, in her heart.