Theatre reviews: The Old Woman Who Lived in A... | Of Two Minds

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SHE gave them some broth without any bread, and whipped them all soundly, and sent them to bed.

That’s what they say about the old woman who lived in a shoe, but the familiar words contain whole worlds of pain and trauma, reaching back to an age when cruelty to children was routine, and the damage it caused simply passed on to the next generation, unspoken and unexamined.

For all these reasons, Elements World Theatre’s show based on the rhyme makes an intriguing contribution to this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, running across Scotland until 24 October, based on the theme of dreams and memories.

In theory, artists have every reason to be wary of events which instrumentalise the arts in this way, but in practice so much great art deals with dreams, memories and altered states of mind that the festival becomes a kind of general celebration of the healing power of imagination.

In The Old Woman Who…,(***) writer/director Lee Gershuny invites her audience to a kind of cabaret of forgotten dreams, where pairs of survivors of the old woman’s fierce childhood regime – played with terrific verve by Corinne Harris and Robert Williamson, with Pete Baynes as their musical host-cum-waiter – confront their own rage, anger and damage in different tragicomic ways; and towards the end, begin to realise not only that they must forgive the old woman, but must begin to recognise her as part of themselves.

Vanessa Coffey and John Payne’s Of Two Minds (***), by contrast, is a tiny fragment of performance designed to explore the experience of bipolar disorder. At less than 30 minutes, it barely has time to begin its story, and so much of its short text consists of deliberate repetition that it seems even shorter than it is.

The effect, in the end, is more like a powerful short dance piece with a verbal score, than a fully-fledged piece of theatre; but it’s beautifully performed by Coffey and Payne, in perfect unison, then sometimes in harmony or dissonance, finding a form that makes us think again about the disorder it describes, in all its jarring tensions, and occasional ecstasies.

‘The Old Woman Who Lived in A...’ was at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, with ‘Of Two Minds’ shown at the Glasgow CCA. Both performances were part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, running across Scotland until October 24