REVIEW: Beast in the Room by April Albert & Jule Boyle

Content warning: child loss, stillbirth, grief

Early on in Beast in the Room we’re given a list of the five things to never say to a grieving parent.

April and Jule, mother and son creators and performers, ease us into the show by warning us what the titular beast in the room is – child loss.

And then we’re told the story of Jule’s birth – a charming tale of going back and forth on a bus, a hot bath and clinging onto the toilet bowl for dear life. April starts to give a detailed description of dilation and crowning, but she stops short so as not to embarrass her son in front of the audience.

So then mum decides, to keep things light, they should play some games. It’s easier for her to play word puzzles with her teenage son than deal with the dreaded beast.

But it’s clear early on that Jule wants to shift the conversation toward the unnamed, which has sat unsaid and undiscussed since he was five years old.

Beast in the Room is a tricky beast to review – with April and Jule exploring their own grief on stage in front of an audience every night. It feels facile to criticise it for fluffed lines or mumbled dialogue when this raw emotion is being expressed so honestly for us to witness.

Jule is the kind of teenager who explores his inner life through playing Minecraft and writing stories set in the world of the sandbox game. We’re told that it’s used in therapy to help patients deal with anxiety and trauma and this makes perfect sense. The game has two modes: creative and survival. It’s April and Jule’s life in a nutshell – sometimes they create and sometimes all they have is the strength for is to push through the pain.

I loved watching mother and son’s bilingual interaction and the familial ease at joking or teasing or cutting with a single remark. But it was difficult to watch some of the interactions when they faltered or the story got honest and intense.

With Jule sometimes playing other characters and trying to coax the truth out of his mother, we spend a lot of time watching the child parenting the parent. And it’s clear that Jule is not an actor with much experience – so asking him to carry the burden of driving the story seemed like a misstep.

Autobiographical work is hard to get right, because it can feel indulgent. I think Beast in the Room is saved from that because talking about the loss of a child can still feel so taboo. Being open and honest about the silence that can lead to a child resenting their parent is a rich vein of drama. But I felt at a remove – I wanted to know more about Jule and how he felt from when he was a child until now. Because the play is about him trying to get his mother to open up, I wanted to understand more about how he felt having to help his mother through this trauma.

Matto Lucas’ simple set of pallets and plants gives us domestic and his visual design and projections weave in the fantastic. It’s a direct allusion to the game Jule loves to play, of course – building, creating and moving slowly toward the final boss and unlocking the trauma within.

Beast in the Room is rough around the edges, but it's open and honest.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Playing at Theatre Works until March 28th

Photos: Matto Lucas