There are number of shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe which could be described as ‘feel-good shows about mental health’. Ever since it circulated on my Twitter feed, I’ve been thinking about Lyn Gardner’s comment piece for The Stage, ‘The fringe can be a lonely place so let’s look out for each other’. She considers the mental and physical toll the Edinburgh Fringe can take on artists and critics. Although a four-week theatre marathon, sleeping 15 to a 3-bed flat and surviving on cheesy chips and gravy from overpriced Edinburgh food stalls would be tough on anyone, she recognises it is particularly tough on those who deal with mental health issues. I know that I have been tempted to push myself too hard; this fringe for me has been a process of learning to accept my limitations and realising how much time I need to write (this review is – ahem – late). And I was only in Edinburgh for a week as a ‘holiday’ from my day job. Lyn recommends – and her word is oracle to slightly bedraggled fringe participants – that ‘everyone working on the fringe… be kind to themselves and kinder still to each other’. It left me wondering, ‘What might kindness onstage look like?’
Idiot Child’s What if the plane falls out of the sky?, Silent Uproar’s A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad), and Hyphen Theatre Company’s The Soft Subject (A Love Story), are all remarkable in the amount of care they take of their audiences. In What if the plane falls out of the sky?, the cast hand out mojitos and mini-cheddars to everyone and get us each to blow out our ‘inner darkness’ into a balloon and then let the air out so they make farting sounds. Recognising how hard their subject matter can be to engage with, these shows charm and inveigle their audiences to reject stigma and open their hearts. Resolutely tragicomic, they do not ignore the realities of how shit mental illness can make you feel but also provide a brief respite from reality. As the main character Sally concludes in A Super Happy Story, ‘actually not bad feels pretty damn good’.
As well as a similar subject matter, the shows share an inkling that realism might not be the best approach. Instead, they employ a range of theatrical coping mechanisms:
A musical. About depression.
Jon Brittain’s A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad), which has original music by Matthew Floyd Jones, follows Sally (Madeleine MacMahon) as she negotiates her life with the black dog. (Literally, she spends a good chunk of the play in a dog costume as part of her crap job as a chugger for a dog shelter. The costume is a visual representation of the failure of her youthful ambition to ‘change the world’.)
A Super Happy Story has the glitz and glamour of Broadway but the lo-fi charm of a small, fringe show. Sally’s story is organised into chapters, represented by a themed flip chart, luxuriously decorated to match the mood. It is not a linear narrative. Sally thinks she is cured and promptly comes off the meds, only to find depression creeping back.
A Super Happy Story is particularly acute at locating the terrifying disconnect between how you think you should feel and how you actually feel. At the start of the play, Sally describes ‘the best night of my life’. Her 16th birthday. Out with her best friend in a club, watching her favourite band, getting with a boy she’s had a crush on for ages. She smiles for the photo but she feels nothing. I wonder whether this feeling could be replicated in any members of the audience less susceptible to the musical’s charms and its message that ‘talking helps’ – of not enjoying a show that everyone else is raving about. However, apart from the compulsory audience selfie at the end, the show doesn’t put pressure on you to enjoy yourself. Above all, it is compassionate.
A drama lesson
Chris Woodley structures his autobiographical solo-show The Soft Subject (A Love Story), directed by Amy Liptrott, like a drama lesson. He writes the Aim of the lesson on his briefcase blackboard: ‘To live happily ever after’. Unfortunately that aim is more difficult in real life than in fairy stories and a key part of the show is about that painful adjustment to reality when a relationship breaks down. However, Chris finds that there is more than one way to live happily ever after than just meeting a handsome prince.
The strength of the show lies in the honesty of Woodley’s writing and delivery. He shares his idealism in the first phases of meeting and getting to know Ryan, and the depths of his depression in the aftermath. A welcome perspective outside of Chris’s is provided in emails from his dad, in which he gruffly dispenses relationship and life advice to his son. The Soft Subject does skirt close to sentimentality and cliché at times. However, if that is the payoff for having a positive gay narrative, which is, as Chris insists, ‘a love story’ and not a coming out story or a story about prejudice and homophobia, then it is worth it.
A motivational fear-fighting session.
While Jon Brittain cheats reality with music and Chris Woodley deludes himself with fairytales, Anna Harpin’s What if the plane falls out of the sky? takes off from reality altogether. Siblings Heron (Susie Riddell), Magpie (Adam Fuller), and Feral Pigeon (Emma Keaveney-Roys) have been abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves. But it’s OK, because they’ve learnt to fight their fears and reward themselves with badges in the process in some kind of sharp-suited, fear-fighting cult. Well, Heron and Magpie have. Poor Feral Pigeon hasn’t been allowed to get any yet.
What if the plane falls out of the sky? is hilariously absurd. It’s like a very dark children’s show. And that allows it to get to the heart of what fear is like. At the beginning of the show, the cast, not yet in character, share their fears: ‘What if I get killed in an avalanche and most people are slightly relieved that they now don’t have to read my novel?’ Behind these comically specific and worryingly relatable fears, there lurk more basic ones: fear of the dark, fear of being left alone, fear of death. At one point in the show, Heron and her siblings demonstrate the dance she created to overcome her fear of flying. As they dance, Riddell’s face becomes a mask of terror. Her movements become jerky. She has to stop. The dance that should have kept fear at bay has incited it.
The cast’s superb ensemble work is matched by their comic timing and physical comedy. The distancing device of Heron, Magpie and Feral Pigeon’s idiosyncratic ‘presentation/ talk/ lecture’ on fear, along with their often unhelpful suggestions (‘Step 1: Admit you have a massive problem’), makes it easier somehow to grapple with anxiety and get a handle on it. Refreshingly, at no point does the show sentimentalise anxiety or suggest that we learn lessons from mental illness. Quite the opposite. What if the plane falls out of the sky? left me feeling a little bit braver. And there are party bags.