The smaller of the two auditoria in Chichester's Festival Theatre site proved an ideal 'intimate' settingFlickr: Phil Knights

It is not often that I see a piece of theatre and find myself so moved by it that I immediately tell everyone I know to go and see it. Yet this is what I found myself doing the day after I watched The House They Grew Up In, a new play staged in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, the smaller of the two auditoria at the Festival Theatre site.

The space is an intimate setting that is ideal for this piece of work. The play is an exploration of the people who get left behind by society. Peppy Angelis (Samantha Spiro) and her autistic brother Daniel (Daniel Ryan) have lived in the same house since they were children. Their home has become a hoarder's paradise, showcased in Max Jones’s breathtaking set design, which utilises vast quantities of junk. The home is a manifestation of Peppy’s mind – disordered, chaotic, and full of confused memories from the past.

“The play explores what happens when the outside world rushes in, uninvited”

The play explores what happens when the outside world rushes in, uninvited, to the lives of Daniel and Peppy. A misunderstanding leads to the police believing that Daniel has sexually assaulted eight-year-old Ben (Rudi Millard and Leonardo Dickens). This misunderstanding eventually resolves itself, and Daniel is released, but not before we have been confronted by an uncomfortable reality.

People know that Daniel is an outsider, that he’s different, and for them, that is all that matters. ‘Different’ becomes interchangeable with ‘paedophile’. As we sit through increasingly uncomfortable scenes, we naturally feel angry at the people invading Daniel and Peppy’s privacy, yet cannot help but ask if we ourselves would be just as quick to reach unjustified conclusions.

For me, the most compelling element of this performance was observing Daniel and Peppy’s developing relationship. We follow the siblings from the opening of Act 1, where we see Spiro’s character appear to act as Daniel’s carer, through to a powerful reversal in Act 2. This plays as one of the most moving exchanges: we watch as Daniel sits his sister down in the chair that he has thus far occupied – he brings her the pills she needs to quieten the voices in her head, and tries to care for her whilst she calls out painfully for her dead relatives.

The moment is a heart-wrenching verbalisation of Peppy’s inner turmoil. It is points like these when the play hits hardest. Seeing the intense vulnerability of the characters allows us to connect with them. Several of my friends were in tears while watching Daniel throw a tantrum and rip up the notebook he writes everything down in, because he was made to record a lie.

“It’s heartwarming and hopeful”

It is interesting that at no point does the script explicitly identify Daniel as autistic; rather, Daniel Ryan chose to interpret the character this way. This is perhaps one of the biggest strengths of Bruce’s piece. By avoiding labelling either character, Bruce forces us to focus on Daniel and Peppy as people, rather than as embodiments of a single quality. It is a subtle reminder not to make the same mistake as the ‘outside’ characters in the play, and jump to conclusions simply because someone is ‘different’.

At this point, you might be thinking that the play is bleak - but it isn't. It’s heartwarming and hopeful. Bruce includes enough comedy in the first act to ensure that the audience don’t feel so uncomfortable that they withdraw. In the second act, Daniel returns after his ordeal not shellshocked and damaged as one might expect, but with a new sense of confidence, and a support worker, to help him live his life again.

The play’s swansong is one of hope. The rubbish in the house begins to recede, and the play ends with Peppy stepping from her house into the garden as the auditorium is draped with bunting made from a lifetime of the sibling’s clothes. It is a symbolic moment. It tells us that things are not always easily fixed, but that with the right help, they can get better

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