REVIEW: ‘His Name Is Zak’ – Apollo Youth Theatre

Having missed out on seeing His Name is Zak last year, and hearing that the original show was being developed further for its slot at the IW Story Festival, I was looking forward to seeing the new version; I was not prepared for its impact on so many levels. This is first of all a story that needs to be told – because although fictional, it reflects so closely the experience of so many. Yes, it depicts the life of a sixteen year old trans boy, but it is much wider than that, dealing with acceptance, non-acceptance, bullying, use of social media…it truly has much to say about our lives today.

The media chosen to complement the live actors supported the story well – projected on to the back screen we saw film footage, expertly filmed by Harry Spencer and directed by Jack Perry,  of the young Zak, beautifully portrayed by Rose Parker, playing on the beach, going to the playground with mum and football with dad, effectively establishing the backstory and parental relationships influencing the current storyline.

At times the emotions defied language, and the use of music, dance and movement was integrated perfectly at these moments – again, Callum Davies is to be congratulated on his choreography as is Zak Whitmore for the original music. Simple props and a simple set meant that the action flowed seamlessly and the audience were caught up in the story throughout, and the use of Karl Whitmore’s fantastic talent for animation gave us an insight into Zak’s thoughts and feelings.

But no production can succeed without good actors, and the young people of the Apollo Youth Theatre are a true credit to their mentor and director, Mish Whitmore. Each one of the actors has obviously thought about and discussed their character to the point where they ‘become’ that person. This is reflected in the performances which were completely believable and captivating.

The team of bullies – Freddie Hollis, Lily Boudewijn, Daysi Boo, Kyra James, Lucas Rayner and Jessica Rockhill – embodied so many comments and behaviour that trans people, and bullied people in general, face every day, and they did it so well that it was truly uncomfortable to watch.

Liv (Immy Netherway) was perfectly cast as Zak’s girlfriend – we saw their relationship apparently flourish in footage of them playing on the beach and playgrounds where Zak had played as a child. But did Liv actually care for Zak, or was he ‘a trend’? Her reactions to their breakup, and her friendship group relationships showed us another side to her character, as well as providing some very funny moments. Her use of social media gave us an insight into the gap between what appears in public on a person’s timeline and what is actually going on in their life. The friends, played by Neve McIntosh, Lily Blazeby, Latia Charles and Nadine Lamplough each contributed valuable insights into Liv, themselves and teenage friendships in general, including the subtle bullying that can go on even between declared firm friends.

Harrison Hartup portrayed the complex character of Dale with insight, emotion and understanding. Dale is on the fringes of the bullies – and feels guilty. He has known and loved Zak most of his life, and is confused by the changes in his friend’s life. Still a teenager himself, he is grappling with emotions beyond his understanding – but at least he knows he’s getting it wrong.

Not so Zak’s mother: played to perfection by Traci Reader. From the moment when the emotional Zak tries to convey his feelings to her to the moment when, waiting to hear whether her son will survive his suicide attempt, she still persists in posting on social media about her ‘pretty daughter’, she embodied almost every negative parental reaction possible. I wanted to shake her, to reason with her, to try to make her see….

As did her husband. Karl Whitmore skilfully portrayed Mark Edwards’ frustration with his wife and his abiding and accepting love for his son. His impassioned speech evoked the uncompromising love a parent has for their child from the moment of birth – at which point, he noted, no one knows how their life will develop. You just want to keep them safe and happy.

Safe and happy is the complete obverse of how Zak actually feels, and Ria/Nick Seager’s ability to portray the complex and deep emotions of Zak can only be congratulated – their performance would be praiseworthy given by a mature, experienced actor. To be able to evoke audience reactions and become Zak in the way Ria/Nick did at such a young age is testament to talent, hard work and Mish’s creative direction.

Well done to everyone connected with this production – it is a story that needs to be told far and wide, and I really hope it will be staged again, for it deserves the widest audience it can get, as I think everyone who was at Quay Arts on Thursday evening will agree.

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