Edinburgh Fringe: Theatre shows that are tackling mental health stigma

A Fortunate Man is based on John Berger's classic elegy for a country GP. Picture: Contributed
A Fortunate Man is based on John Berger's classic elegy for a country GP. Picture: Contributed
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Mental health is, once again, a big theme at the Fringe, and these shows tackle it from different angles with great success, says Tim Cornwell

Electrolyte, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) *****

Electrolyte tells Jessie's story in rap rhymes and songs. Picture: Contributed

Electrolyte tells Jessie's story in rap rhymes and songs. Picture: Contributed

Jennifer Lack: Narratively Satisfying, theSpace@Jurys Inn (Venue 260) ***

A Fortunate Man, Summerhall (Venue 26) ****

Lost in Thought, Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61) ****

Glasgow ’14, theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53) ****

Offstage, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) ***

A Clown Show About Rain, Pleasance Dome (Venue 23) ****

Eat Your Heart Out, Paradise in Augustines (Venue 152) ***

An old friend comes to me with a familiar story. A close relative has suffered a full-blown psychotic episode. The story was the same a year ago with another friend, someone else’s son. Who among us doesn’t know someone who has struggled with mental illness, mild or severe?

Mental illness in the best stories appears as a journey, often one that begins with a traumatic event and finds a way back through therapy, medication, the vital support of friends. For Jessie, in Electrolyte, it’s the suicide of her father that takes her on a wild ride to London, to a warehouse party hosted by her new musician friend Allie, and to track down her missing mother. Jessie is no fun when she’s stuck in a mood; life is a packet of tinnies, and a bag of powder.

Electrolyte is gig theatre, loud and driven. An immediate standing ovation met Olivia Sweeney’s towering, exhausting performance in a story told in rap rhymes and song. The script has just been published by Samuel French. It was written by James Meteyard, after a close family member went through a mental health crisis. In a sad symbiosis, he lost his own mother just before the festival.

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The music and lyrics are by Maimuna Memon, who as Allie exercises an almost mystical presence on stage, and becomes a kind of homing beacon for Jessie, a fixation: “I wanna tell her she’s great, I wanna tell her she blew me away, I wanna tell her that she’s an artist, that I’m an artist and somehow, we should collaborate.”

The score goes from blasts of sound to lyrical sweetness; good enough that I wanted to hear Allie Touch do a solo gig of her own. Ben Simon and Megan Ashley take the all-important supporting roles as friends; because friends, in a constant theme of these Fringe shows, are vital to guiding people when they cannot see the way by themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Lack: Narratively Satisfying. An author reads, sitting, in a tiny space, from her novel about a girl, Jennifer, whose beloved grandmother has walked into the sea. She writes letters to Virginia Woolf, asking her: why did Granny drown herself, like you?

Jennifer is nerdy like her gran. At school, she tidies the playground. The panic attacks start in her teen years; she has to take control of her own story. Virginia Woolf was tied to her bed and force-fed milk; luckily there are better solutions today.

Jennifer Lack, as both the object of this narrative and its author, employs a simple but clever staging device, with four-star writing and performance and a light touch. The piece won praise from a mental health professional in the audience for its intelligent insights.

Fifty years ago the writer and legendary art critic John Berger, with photographer Jean Mohr, published A Fortunate Man, the story of a country doctor that became a medical classic. They followed Dr John Sassall in his rounds, in an elegy for the country GP, read to this day by doctors to “remind us how to care”.

“I know, I know,” Sassall says, time and again, living behind his eyes as he tends his patients from birth to pregnancy. Less known about Sassall is that he shot himself 15 years later; he couldn’t learn how to heal himself.

Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty take multiple roles in a piece that aptly begins in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room in the guise of a documentary lecture, but shifts to a sadly moving and penetrating performance, including an extraordinary duet of diagnoses, shredded pages scattered down a path like autumn leaves around a prostrate body.

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These Fringe shows are vital to addressing illness squarely, to off-loading stigma; for me, they are an education. They are about stories, people, performance.

With Lucy Danser, writer of Lost in Thought, we discuss the pros and cons of categorising, and coming out. Do you bill a show as being “about” mental health, for a ticket-buyer whose idea of a good night out is not depression or schizophrenia? As writer or actor, do you declare your own experience?

“I have very mixed views,” Danser told me. “At the moment because of the way the Fringe is run, whether you are looking for something specific it’s great to be able to tag things. I find it difficult because what we are trying to do here is make things not taboo, to smash through stereotypes, and having to commit to a label is sort of the antithesis to that.”

We often imagine obsessive compulsive disorder as obsessively washing hands. Danser has experienced OCD and Lost in Thought portrays it as a response to flooding, anxious, repetitive thoughts. It’s calculated that an average person can have 4,000 such thoughts a day.

Felicity’s obsessive anxiety centres on her mother – hardly surprising, given that Dad has flown the coop and mum Marie is struggling to date again. As so often, family is the fulcrum. The skill of this two-hander is the interplay between Felicity (Kerry Fitzgerald) and Marie, played particularly memorably by Lisa Keast, as genial, homely, confused, and the initial object of the problem she will try to solve.

The issue of labelling came to the fore with me in Glasgow ’14. The billing for this clever one-man show, with its character acting master-class by Neil Gywnne, turned on the “unseen” illness of male mental health. The action, however, is driven by what four men experience in the same tragic, traumatic minutes in George Square, Glasgow. Gywnne delivers an extraordinary performance, at its height when one of his characters locks his arms around the other, who furiously turns around and belts him. A huge amount of revelation and drama is packed into a short hour. Watch, especially, for the homeless man bent on boosting his takings with a dog.

Two shows in this series confront depression, and significantly they do it wordlessly, in mime. Offstage is a clever, adroitly performed little piece about two slapstick performers. Crawling out on to a glittery stage, their buffoonery runs from seal masks to bird cages; but a shabby backstage life of poverty and alcoholism wears down the false smiles.

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In A Clown Show About Rain, three clowns set off for a sail; breathing in sea air, swaying with the waves. Two lighthouse keepers mark their pitches for some fishing. A storm is brewing; but for some, the rain drips in, even on sunny days.

I found Cara Withers especially delightful as a sulky, bossy guardian of the tiller, with the equally able seawomen Josie Underwood and Stella Kailides. The delicious Cordelia Stevenson, in a double act with Jack Wakely, ventures out with the ludicrous insouciance of Mr Hulot’s Holiday, while they squabble over sandwiches. The message overall: in stormy weather, it’s friends that matter, as well as a nice cup of tea.

The girl who doesn’t eat becomes an object of school curiosity in Eat Your Heart Out. “What cracked you?” asks the new friend in the hospital, after Belle collapses on her 18th birthday. Sex in the bike shed, rotting food behind the bed, rowing with sister and mum. This piece, devised by a group of eating disorder sufferers and survivors, is energetic and funny, and not afraid to shock. It is thoroughly watchable.

Ella McCallum anchors the piece as Belle; Asa Haynes, Charlotte Dowding, and Mia Georgis all turned in strong, sassy, versatile performances Like most of the shows in this series it was borderline four-star. Bravo.

Electrolyte until 27 August, 5:30pm. Jennifer Lack: Narratively Satisfying until 25 August, 7:05pm. A Fortunate Man until 26 August, 4:30pm. Lost in Thought until 26 August, 6:40pm. Glasgow ’14 until 18 August, 8:10pm. Offstage until 27 August, 12:10pm. A Clown Show About Rain until 27 August, 1:40pm. Eat Your Heart Out until 26 August, 4pm.