Calling a show Mess is begging for critical speculation about its tidiness, or otherwise, especially when there are so many elements involved– song, mime, exaggerated gestures – that don’t fit onto a neatly printed page. Premiering at the Traverse Theatre during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe the show is now at Battersea Arts Centre as part of a UK tour.
I caught its trio of actors on a tour bus to Bath, the set’s mound of fluffy towels doing little to muffle the bumps in the road as the phone got passed round, cut out and crackled.
Caroline Horton’s first solo show, You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, saw her play the part of her own grandmother in a one-woman show based on her letters and memories. Mess is something more shared. Caroline trained with Philippe Gaulier in Paris – a former disciple of Lecoq, who advocates a more free-spirited kind of clowning and improvisation. The theory is that acting is a game to take pleasure in, to explore freely, speaking to the imagination of the audience. Taking anorexia as its subject, Mess disrupts the heavy, culturally laden canon of eating disorder tropes into something light, even whimsical. Caroline explained that Mess aims to work “in a more basic way than educating anybody, because I don’t feel I know enough to do that” — the piece’s playful approach says that “it’s OK if you get stuff wrong, because anorexia is really confusing and illogical and crazy and hard to talk about.”
In Mess Caroline and her co-stars Hannah Boyde and Seiriol Davies play three friends putting on a play about anorexia. Josephine (Horton) is barely eating, daunted by a single apple, let alone the pizza her boyfriend Boris (Boyde) wants to take her for. Chaotic, the perfectionist Josephine is creating a prototype of a piece she wants to put on the West End, full of self-consciousness of her mission to “tackle issues and conquer stigma.” Caroline has freely admitted her own experiences of anorexia – not in the formulaic, soul-searching style of pieces that turn up in Sunday supplements, but in its role provoking the discussions around Mess’s creation. She explained that the play came out of a talk she did at her old school – “I was stunned by how relieved and how happy people were to see someone in recovery and getting better speaking out in public to say ‘this was a real problem for me and now I’m dealing with it’.”
I wondered if Hannah and Seiriol ever felt like they were trespassing on her story, and about how it felt to be a part of something that could potentially be so personal. Hannah dealt with it by “being focused on ‘what is the story that we’re trying to tell in this play?’ as opposed to thinking of Caroline as being an actual person that actually features in the piece.” To Seiriol, “the characters that have been created are to some degree versions of ourselves and that distances ourselves from the story, which leaves us freer to play.” The layers are folded over with more complications, as what’s real and what’s planned in the character’s interactions onstage made for a confusing process. Caroline explained that “we had to be clear about which were the parts they’d rehearsed, and which were improvised in the moment — personally I definitely wouldn’t want to see Josephine’s play!”
The similar names of Caroline and Seiriol’s characters – Josephine and Sistahl – might their friendship onstage look organic, but Caroline got Seiriol on board specially for the project, via a contact from Philippe Gaulier – he exclaimed that “I got a message on Facebook from Caroline, I’d never met her!” Caroline wanted “a musician who was comfortable with improvising, and who could be a provoker in the style of a lot of the training I’d done.” Seiriol’s questioning the play’s approach made “a wonderful awkward battle of ‘how we are going to do this?’ during the devising process, which sort of reflected how baffled people are by anorexia, feeling unable to say the right thing, or maybe that there isn’t even a right thing to say — everything they say could be taken the wrong way or misinterpreted.” The trio spark off each other, joking, becoming almost a vaudeville act, but one whose collaborative approach is moderated by Caroline’s script — Seiriol explained that “you can play freely, but then its good to have someone else who can go ‘actually, it needs to be more like this.’”
As well as being a solidly comic presence in the play, Seiriol’s music supplies live sound and synth effects, accompanying the moments when the actor’s untrained voices join in winsome, untrained songs. Caroline felt that “since we all love singing, and sitting round sort of mucking about music, it felt quite natural — often Hannah and I would do something and Seiriol would respond to it, and sort of improvise to it through music.” Scrabble is a way of playing that gets Josephine and Boris together, before turning up Caroline’s preoccupations with food in weighted words – in appropriately playful style, the game was introduced when “Seiriol started playing some chords, and then Hannah and I just started to improvise the lyrics over the top.” Caroline was keen to keep Mess a play with songs, rather than turning it into a musical, though –although in the background Seiriol darkly muttered “I wasn’t allowed to!” – feeling that “there are moments where the songs work really beautifully but they don’t work all the time, we didn’t always need songs to express stuff.”
Rather than landing box-set walls around the characters on the tech rehearsal day, the set had a similarly gentle, gradual evolution. Caroline explained that “in so many improvisations I would end up creating something where I would go up high,” which resolved into a ladder to an attic room where Josephine half hides, half sits in state beneath a pink parasol. There’s more hiding courtesy of a duvet that was “in from the beginning, I had a hunch it would be fundamental” – set designer Fiammetta Horvat came up with her character-led, delicately soft design after being involved one step from the beginning. She and the lighting designer Andy Purves were “given briefs by the characters in the play, so it could all stay in a playful naive sort of world.”
There’s a kind of double mission behind Mess’s progression round the country – it’s touring until the autumn. One the one hand, Caroline is “really passionate” about the importance of touring new theatre full stop – “I grew up in a little village in Staffordshire and pretty much just saw the panto once a year until I was old enough to say ‘oh, there’s other stuff’ and made my parents take me down to London.” Mess has already been big regional theatres like Brighton, Newcastle, Bath and Warwick – next it will be going to “village halls, the kind of places where I did You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, somewhere more rural.” There’s also an element of consciousness-raising though, which comes out in Caroline’s engagement with psychiatrists from the Maudsley early in the process – “we’re taking it to schools, colleges, and mental health festivals – in its own strange little way I hope it is doing a bit to get people who maybe would have no interest in anorexia to understand it a little more.” Although she’s aware that “you’re asking a lot of the team,” with their stage manager “having done the entire get-out and now he’s driving us down to Bournemouth,” she felt that “its so lovely to see a whole new audience turn up to see your stuff, to see how they react.”
As the show has progressed “we’ve become more and more adept as a little trio – if the audience are really getting the humour we rein things in and make them smaller so we get the right balance of the humour and the pain – its always a really active process of reading the audience, and balancing the piece.” Life outside Mess involves balancing acts of its own. Caroline is keeping busy “doing bits of work as a devisor or director on various other people’s projects” as well as working on a new show about tax havens. This should see her returning to her roots at Gaulier by using clowning, bouffon style, but its “in its very very early stages.” Hannah will be acting in a remounted performance of Fuente Ovejuna at the Southwark Playhouse’s new home, and apparently Seriol’s started work writing his second play, based on the true story of a transvestite marquis from South Wales – although Caroline told me to make up what I couldn’t make out over the crackling phone, so that one might be an imaginative fit of mine.
Anorexia might be “illogical and crazy and hard to talk about,” but there’s something satisfyingly level headed about Caroline’s aims. Paradoxically, in making a play that hopes to “inspire a more robust conversation” about anorexia, she’s making a softer, more broken up, unclinical version of the illness. Devising and play make for a less linear story, one that looks beyond the well-known narratives of first-person suffering. Her whimsical approach might have given some critics toothache, but is easier to swallow for audiences across the country then something more medically parceled out, desiccated as the apple Josephine just can’t eat.