It’s 10:30pm on Monday 14 August, and I’m one of almost 30 people crammed into a Free Fringe venue smaller than my bedroom, watching a woman crying and crawling across the floor in her pyjamas. It is, unexpectedly, one of my favourite memories of this year’s festival.
The show is It’s My Funeral and I’ll Throw Glitter if I Want To, by the Australian performer Isobel Marmion. I’m here as a judge for the Mental Health Fringe Award, a new prize presented by the Mental Health Foundation. Marmion’s show is on our long list, and is described as “a fast-paced and bracingly intimate look at mental illness and the fear of dying alone”.
In the end the show is not quite what we’re looking for – much as I like it, I can’t picture this loose series of sketches working as well at the Tron in Glasgow, where our winner will be invited to perform next year supported by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival and Mayfesto.
It is, however, a great example of why art is so effective at changing the way we think, and talk, about mental health. As Marmion describes what it’s like to be bipolar, with the help of jokes, dance routines and party poppers, there is a palpable sense of empathy and solidarity in this tiny room. Everybody is on her side, because she has turned a set of distressing symptoms into a funny, relatable human story.
It’s also a show that feels very much of its time. Something remarkable has happened at this festival recently. As more and more performers have opened up about their own mental health difficulties, the number of shows on the subject has multiplied so rapidly that it’s becoming a genre in itself.
The first clear sign of this was in 2014, when Every Brilliant Thing, a remarkably uplifting show about depression, was a big Fringe hit (it’s back this year if you missed it). Significantly, 2014 was also the year of three shocking deaths – Robin Williams, whose loss just as the Fringe was beginning prompted much soul-searching among comedians (many more of whom have now opened up about their own mental health) and the theatre-makers Adrian Howells and Ian Smith, who were nothing like as famous as Williams but were widely loved and admired. The cabaret artist Le Gateau Chocolat was inspired to make Black, his 2015 Fringe show about depression, by the death of Howells, who had been his mentor.
Bryony Kimmings said Williams’ death – and the debate that followed about men’s mental health – was what persuaded her to create Fake It ’Til You Make It, a show about caring for a man with depression that, in 2015, sold out its entire Fringe run within days.
In turn, I’ve heard several performers this year say they were influenced by Fake It ’Til You Make It – most vocally the TV actor Sam Underwood, who is doing his own show about depression, Losing Days, at New Town Theatre. The idea of an “uplifting show about mental illness” – often with songs – has now gone mainstream. A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) has been selling out in a mid-afternoon slot at the Pleasance. And Amy Conway’s similarly titled Super Awesome World – which doesn’t have songs but does have vintage computer games and audience participation – has had five-star reviews at Summerhall.
This year, then, seemed a good time for a mental health charity on a mission to challenge negative attitudes towards mental health to launch an award recognising, celebrating and encouraging this kind of groundbreaking work. And after seeing almost 50 shows – with some support and guidance from the Scotsman’s team of critics – we are delighted to announce our shortlist. The final contenders for the first ever Mental Health Fringe Award are:
• Mental, Assembly Roxy
• A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad), Pleasance
• Hear Me Raw, Underbelly
• Jack Rooke: Happy Hour, Underbelly
• Give Me Your Love, Summerhall
• Amy Conway’s Super Awesome World, Summerhall
• Snowflake, Pleasance
Who will the winner be? Honestly, we haven’t decided yet. In the meantime, it’s interesting to reflect on what these shows say about the state of this new Fringe genre. A conspicuous common theme is youth – the majority of our shortlisted shows are about young people struggling to find their place in the world and, as Snowflake in particular explores, being let down by an older generation that doesn’t seem to appreciate, or care about, the immense pressure they are being put under. Another theme is the stress of taking care of family members whose mental health challenges can be overwhelming – as in Mental, a candid, moving account of a son’s relationship with his bipolar mother, and Give Me Your Love, in which a former soldier’s PTSD confines him to the inside of a box for the entire show.
As I write this, each of our judges seems to have a different favourite show, which will make a decision tricky. But it’s a privilege to see this work and contemplate the meaning of it all. And we’ll tell you our winner tomorrow morning.
Andrew Eaton-Lewis is arts lead for the Mental Health Foundation.