I Am Falling, The Gate, London

When tragedy strikes, words are not enough
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The Independent Culture

In Notting Hill's famously tiny upstairs theatre, swinging a cat has never been an option. At least not until Carrie Cracknell arrived as co-artistic director. Where her first production, The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents, used movement to make breathing space in a dense narrative, her latest work puts physical expression centre-stage, pushing the spoken word, literally, into a corner, delivered from a microphone on a stand.

I Am Falling tells an absorbing story, about the relationship between a neglectful son and his elderly parents, and the web of guilt and memory that descends when the parents go through with a suicide pact.

By compressing the spoken narrative into a series of short, repeated reminiscences, accruing detail each time, the truth only gradually emerges, to shine on the dance. Words tells stories, abstract movement can't. What it can do is absorb and transmute emotion, giving it pace and propulsion. Cracknell, choreographer Anna Williams and dramaturg Jenny Worton have worked hard to find a balance between hard information and soft, facts and unspeakable feelings, the life of the head and the life of the self we can't control.

Restricting themselves to 40 minutes creates a geometry that's rich but uncluttered. By the end it's clear that the tragedy is the son's, not the parents', though the switch for this lightbulb moment is well hidden. In retrospect, there are clues from the start. Two young dancers, Ben Duke and Petra Soor, play the parents, and it's the older, stiffer, business-suited Simon Molloy who is the son. At the microphone, he remembers a family party – he couldn't stay, he had a plane to catch – when his mother pressed on him a tattered photo of the three of them on a childhood beach holiday. He carelessly leaves it behind. Even such shards of domestic detail assume significance on later tellings.

In another reminiscence, we see the parents larking about on a cliff, exhilarated, in love, creatures of impulse and joy. It's this silver thread of life and aliveness that links their youth to age; even the final sleeping tablets are washed down with champagne. Credit to Edward Lewis's sound, and Katharine Williams's lighting, for whisking us from cliff top to suburban semi in only a bare, black box. But the clincher is Garance Marneur's design that frames the stage like a cinema screen. The techniques that bring movement and text into such a happy marriage have been learnt from the art of the film edit.

The Gate Theatre, London W11 (020-7229 0706) until 2 February