Experimental play on life’s regrets debuts at Theatre Festival


When Boris Van Severen and Jonas Vermeulen won the young talent prize at the annual theatre festival in 2014, they promised to come back with a follow up. Three years on, they’ve delivered

The only way is up

In 2014, Boris Van Severen and Jonas Vermeulen’s debut show, The Great Downhill Journey of Little Tommy, won the Roel Verniers Prize for young talent at Het Theater Festival, the annual showcase of Dutch-language stage productions from the previous season.

The rock opera garnered praise in Belgium and abroad, reaching audiences at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Auckland Arts Festival in New Zealand.

Het Theater Festival’s cash prize allowed the Flemish duo, who met while studying at Antwerp’s Royal Conservatory, to produce a new show for the next edition. They got to work almost immediately, but it took them three years to come up with The Only Way is UP.

“We made a conscious decision to take more time,” Van Severen (pictured) explains. “We brainstormed the idea of portraying life stages from different perspectives at 2014’s Theater aan Zee, but it took us a while to put the pieces together.”

Witnessing the new show, it’s easy to see why. It’s not typical theatre, but rather an ambitious coupling of music and drama, technically and musically even more sophisticated than the pair’s debut.

Family affair

The writer-directors also play the show’s four characters, from behind a DJ deck and in front of a neon wall; their lines are accompanied by beats and electric guitar. The music and dialogue illustrate the difficult passages in people’s lives, from initial hopes and dreams, through pain, redemption and regret.

Van Severen and Vermeulen drew inspiration from members of their own family who no longer bear any resemblance to the people they were in their youth. In a way, growing older makes us lose not only our innocence, the two explain, but a lot of our potential as well.

“At my age, I could still become a plumber, if I wanted to,” says Van Severen, who’s 28. “But at 40, I think it would be too late for that. Our options become more limited as we get older. Life is like a funnel with a hole at the end that forces us to come to terms with what we have.”

Life is like a funnel with a hole at the end that forces us to come to terms with what we have

- Boris Van Severen

One of their other inspirations was the popular BBC series Up, in which director Michael Apted spent more than 50 years chronicling the lives of 14 people from different socio-economic backgrounds, starting when they were children. “For me,” says Van Severen, “one of the most important phrases in the series is, ‘Better a has been than a never was’.”

The characters in The Only Way is UP are also a reflection of the playwrights’ own lives. At one time or another, they both found themselves in the proverbial rat race, wanting only to break out of it and do their own thing.

“We only graduated four years ago,” Vermeulen says. In fact, Little Tommy was their final project before graduation. “We wanted to create something daring in the safety of our school before moving on to full-on careers.”


But the show’s success gave them the confidence to continue on their path. “The success has taken us where we are now, but it also means our lives have taken a different direction from what we initially planned.”

By combining the different elements in their work, the duo gets to invent a language of their own, putting stories in metre and rhyme. For Vermeulen, who’s also the guitarist and synth player for the electronic punk rock outfit Psycho 44, the entire process is like a mix-and-match.

This also means they’d like to break out of the confines of traditional theatre. “It would be awesome to play in concert halls one day, bringing together rock and theatre audiences,” Van Severen adds. “That really would be a dream come true.”

Double duty

The Only Way is UP is in English, which, Vermeulen says, was a natural choice. “All of the fantasy we imagined was just in English, and the language contributes to the concert-like feel.”

The show’s official tour starts in December, but first it will honour its debt to Het Theater Festival, where it makes up part of the event’s side programme. Vermeulen, however, also stars in one of the festival’s official 12 selections: Risjaar Drei (Richard III) is a Shakespearean production by Olympique Dramatique and Toneelhuis.

He shares the stage with two of Flanders’ biggest actors of both stage and screen: Peter Van Den Begin and Jan Decleir. Vermeulen met the two co-stars while working on the TV series Den Elfde van den Elfde. He says he felt honoured when they asked him to join them back on stage, especially as he also got to write two of the play’s songs.

It’s a play that wants to make Shakespeare more accessible to a wider audience

- Jonas Vermeulen

“I have always been a huge fan of Decleir and Van Den Begin,” he says. “Sharing the stage with experienced actors is always very interesting, especially if it’s in a play that wants to make Shakespeare more accessible to a wider audience.”

Compared to the compact concert vibe of The Only Way Is UP, he adds, “the 2.5 hours of traditional theatre is a totally different experience. But it’s nice to do both”.

Other shows selected by the jury include the monologue Alleen (Alone) by the Antwerp theatre company Stan, KVS’s Malcolm X and Abattoir Fermé’s Buko. Also on the list are dance productions by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Salva Sanchis and Marc Vanrunxt, and Chasse Patate, a hilarious play for young people by Ghent theatre collective Studio Orka.

The Only Way is UP, 5-6 September 20.30, Beursschouwburg, Brussels

Het Theater Festival, 31 August to 10 September, across Brussels

Photo: Thomas Dhanens