British actor and Theatre Damfino coartistic director Tristan Sturrock (Broadway's Brief Encounter) will tell you about the ancient rites of spring celebrated on his native Cornwall's May Day in his solo show Mayday Mayday, now making its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse. What he won't mention is that this is a day that has been associated with international labor and socialist movements since the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. But he should, considering the hundreds of thousands of pounds Britain's National Health Service (established in 1948 under Clement Atlee's labour government) probably spent on his recovery from a severe neck injury on May 1, 2004, which is now the subject of his show. If he were a typical American actor, chances are he would still be spending a significant portion of his ticket proceeds on medical bills. Unfortunately, an examination of this disparity is just one of the many missed opportunities in this shallow and uninteresting play.
Mayday Mayday begins at the cottage Sturrock shares with wife (then girlfriend), Katy Carmichael (who is also the director of the play), in the seaside town of Padstow, Cornwall. She's five months pregnant and doesn't want to leave the house, but it's the eve before May Day, so he wants to celebrate at the local pub. He gets hammed (without Katy), and stumbles home drunk, only to fall backwards off a wall on the steep path leading up to the cottage, fracturing his C5 vertebrae and nearly dying. Luckily, he is found by Katy and a friend in time and airlifted to a hospital in Plymouth, where he begins his slow recovery.
I'm really happy that Sturrock didn't die and recovered so completely that he is still gracing audiences with his considerable talent. After we learn that he will survive, however, Mayday Mayday becomes an exercise in self-indulgence. The stakes are simply too low for us to care. He never worries aloud about his job, his ability to provide for his soon-to-be-born child, or even his capacity to have sex again. So much is left unexamined in favor of interminable lyrical dances about such champagne problems as whether Sturrock will opt for a neck brace or an operation on his road to recovery. Perhaps this lack of angst is indicative of the peace of mind that robust social safety nets, like that enjoyed by the British, can provide. Whatever the case, it is certainly not thrilling to watch on stage.
I wonder if Carmichael ever sat in a darkened theater watching her husband rehearse his navel-gazing show and thought, "You incredible idiot: How could you go out and get drunk and break your neck right before I'm supposed to give birth?" I know I would have. Unfortunately, if she did have those thoughts she never shared them with Sturrock, as evidenced by the lack of conflict in this production. A champagne bottle that Sturrock shakes up at the pub, but never pops as anticipated, is a perfect metaphor for this disappointing show.
Sure, there are bright moments in the general grayness of Mayday Mayday: The opening image of Sturrock beyond a scrim, falling through space, is quite arresting. And the portrayal of his surgeon as a Gielgud-esque actor in his dressing room outside the "operating theatre" is quite funny, until it is ruined by an overly long interpretive pantomime of the surgery. But so much of this show is all about Sturrock and not about the larger implications of his condition.
To be fair, he does offer thanks to the people around him, almost as an afterthought in the last few minutes of the play. But this has the same effect as a page of acknowledgments buried at the end of a 300-page self-serving memoir.
Mayday Mayday offers a happy-enough ending, but compelling theater it is not. If I wanted to listen to 70 minutes of someone talking about his medical problems, I would schedule a date with my grandfather.