Actor, director and prolific playwright Philip Osment passed away last May at the age of 66 after a long respiratory illness. His final play, Can I Help You?, is now receiving its London premiere at Omnibus Theatre care of Playing ON, the company he co-founded to give voice to marginalised communities.
In Can I Help You?, an off-duty policeman (Gabriel Vick) is about to throw himself off Beachy Head when he’s met by an older Ghanaian woman (Susan Aderin) carrying a laundry bag and cat box. Over the course of one rainy night, these two disparate souls both contemplate suicide and learn what it truly means to be touched by the magic of hope.
Osment co-founded Playing ON in 2010 with Jim Pope, who directs Can I Help You?. He wrote the piece after years of workshops and extensive research with mental health groups. It is partly inspired by characters created by service users and clinicians in a six-week theatre engagement programme the company ran with East London NHS Foundation Trust (ELFT) and Theatre Royal Stratford East, as well as interviews with Ghanaians living in the UK.
“We do not need much space to be happy. We need only to be safe”
In addition to Omnibus and The North Wall arts centre in Oxford, Can I Help You? has been performed in hospitals and community centres in order to take the work to people whose stories are represented onstage. Wraparound events during the Omnibus run also include a ‘Celebration of Philip Osment’ evening on 12 March and pre-show workshop on 18 March.
For the post-show talk I chaired, I was joined by cast members Susan Aderin and Gabriel Vick, artistic director Jim Pope and Jill Power, a Playing ON associate artist who first got involved with the company after attending one of their workshops as a service-user three years. Amongst some the questions covered in a touching and insightful conversation were:
- What was unique about Philip Osment’s approach to making theatre?
- How did he influence other theatre-makers?
- Can theatre really change lives? Could it be an alternative to medicine for people with mental health issues?
- How do extensive outreach workshops with marginalised communities lead to new plays?
- Why is the directorial practice of ‘blocking’ so limiting?
- What are the most effective ways of creating atmospheric conditions onstage?
- Should West End shows adopt ‘pastoral care’ practices? Should Equity appoint ‘wellness representatives’?
- What is the Dragon Cafe and why is it such a valuable community resource?
- How does Omnibus Theatre support associate companies like Playing ON?
- Do dogs – and cats – go to heaven?
Can I Help You? continues at London’s Omnibus Theater until 21 March 2020.
Event photography by Peter Jones.
Production photography by Bridie O’Sullivan.