ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
By Kendall Feaver
Directed by Katy Rudd
Winner of The Bruntwood Prize for playwriting 2015 this play tackles a vital social issue regarding our approach to children’s mental health, and how we support and educate families coping with mental illness. Kendall Feaver has written a beautifully balanced play that looks at the pros and cons of medication. The Almighty Sometimes puts a spotlight on fraught and complex family situations by questioning if it is possible to find a balance where we enable young people to have their independence as they grow into adulthood and still ensure we safeguard vulnerable individuals.
The writing is always engaging and Feaver skilfully takes the audience into Anna’s world where there are no certainties. She is constantly checking out what What do you think of me? Anna is complex, full of confidence and bravado yet also crippled with fears over who she really might be or could be without her medication. Feaver ensures no character is one dimensional and our perceptions and loyalties are constantly shifting. Is her mother Renee doing her very best for her daughter or is she smothering and controlling? Martyr, monster or a Mum desperately navigating CAMHS, the cash strapped NHS adolescent mental health service? Psychiatrist Vivienne appears dedicated and professional, and emotionally invested in Anna. Yet does she know enough about the drugs she prescribes to an adolescent brain which is still in development? Is it ok to publish academic books and articles about your clients when confidentiality is sacrosanct in therapy, and when your subject is too young to give consent?
Katy Rudd has clearly invested a lot of care and sensitivity in this production. She has taken a great cast of talented actors and a wonderful new script and created something really sublime and special.
Julie Hesmondhalgh as Renee epitomises the energy and lifeforce of a woman trying to keep her child alive having witnessed the horror of her attempting suicide at age seven. After years of relative calm with the aid of psychiatry and medication she is distraught to find that fragile equilibrium shattered as Anna attempts to discover who she is without her medication. As always Hesmondhalgh lights up the stage with her earthy humour and wry intelligence. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is impeccable as the Child Psychiatrist heavily invested in her young client and torn by the therapeutic rupture created by NHS policy that demands Anna move on to Adult Services. Mike Noble is wonderful as the diffident, slightly bemused young suitor. His own troubled background and sense of shame or otherness ensure he “gets” Anna’s experience of being judged. The tragedy being he needs the nurturing of her mother Renee in his life more than he needs the increasingly unwell Anna. I have had to take care of people who should have been taking care of me- Why the fuck would I sign up for one more?
Norah Holden-Lopez continues to astound and is on a real trajectory building on her recent performances in Ghosts and in Our Town. She delivers a sensitive and powerful portrayal of bipolar disorder which is never mawkish or hysterical but is perfectly pitched throughout. She moves apparently effortlessly from a medicated Anna who is managing her move to adulthood with apparent aplomb to a vicious, fractured girl wounding and controlling those who love her with a calculated suicide attempt. In the second act Lopez-Holden is barely recognisable as she further splinters and fractures. It is a terrifying and haunting spectacle and her performance is electrifying.
Designer Susanna Vize has created a glistening, watery hexagon which evokes slippery precipices. A sense of little to cling unto and lots of swirling movement under the surface like the flow of mental processes. The swings descending from the ceiling bring a lightness as Anna and Oliver get to just hang out like any young couple but also reflect the up and down cycling of Anna’s mood as she stops her medication. As Anna floats up higher and higher she is further and further away from Oliver. This new Anna wants to feel lighter and freer but risks plummeting to the ground without treatment. The cage like trap which later surrounds her is sharp and brutal with slats of light splintering around her as though in the electric force field of her own mind. Lucy Carter and Giles Thomas use light and sound respectively to build on this sense of mental torment; jarring and discordant as they wound and disorientate. The overall effect is of the slicing of synapses creating new vivid ideas but also burning through and obliterating other thoughts and feelings.
In the U.K. a tiny 6% of health research is spent on mental health yet one in four of the population will experience some degree of mental health disorder leaving many families living on a precipice. What does a diagnosis mean for their child? A label that stays with their medical records and often defines and dictates their choices in life. What will be the side effects of the drugs, even if they work? What if therapy reveals something even more terrible in a family story? With a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease or cancer we tend to readily accept any treatment that may bring about cure or maintain life. Sadly with mental health we often reject any help through fear of social stigma. My own mother, in the grip of depression actually asked me if I minded her accepting treatment in a psychiatric unit, yet had never thought to question her right to have treatment for cardiac issues. In a modern society it is horrific that mental health is not given the same value as our physical health.
This is a play with a difficult subject matter that contains some scenes that are uncomfortable or distressing to watch. It is also a play that informs and engages and has a lightness of humour and humanity running through it. It explores what form tenderness takes in the face of adversity. It may be a mother crushing pills into her child’s food to keep her child alive, or forcing her to gag after an overdose attempt or shaving her legs for her when she wants to feel pretty. Regardless of whether we choose medication or not, it is essentially about our human need to have someone there with us in the light and also in dark times. I don’t know where I am…..You’re with me.
Images by Manuel Harlan