RH: This is a review. (awkward sideways glance)
DBY: And this symbolises meta-text.
RH: This is sentence three.
DBY: And that is enough of this.
DBY: That was our rather facetious point of entry to our review of Caroline Horton’s Mess. Which wore its metatextuality on its pastel coloured, whimsical, fable-esque sleeve. Most of this was delivered by Sistahl, seated behind an array of toylike synths (plink) on shabby chic pedestals, with a perm like a Wes Anderson hedgerow and eyes like cartoon gaslamps. His accompaniment was a scattergun mix of one liners, numbed comedy repetition, and awkward bathetic voices, lending shape to the journey of our heroes Jospehine and Boris as they clowned their way through this vaudevillian twee take on the experience of anorexia nervosa.
RH: The piece perhaps hinged upon an awkward tension between this twee fairytale aesthetic, littered with flowers and ice cream and a plinky soundtrack, and its unsugarcoated underlying subject matter. Even at points where these awkward bedfellows come together, and an unusual style emerges, the peeking through to the lonely and possessive world of eating disorders through a strangely fluffy Jacqueline Wilson aesthetic, causes a slight friction.
DBY: Yes, I agree. It’s a very oblique angle of entry into the discourses of mental health. As Josephine is laying out the territory of the piece, in this slightly perpetual mode of heightened melodrama, with these overt overly-graceful mannerisms – this sort of aestheticisation of a childhood princess fairytale that turns it into a sort of post-modern fable – she mentions how she is going to “tackle stigma” and then raises her jaw to look grandly into the middle distance. This is the gesture that at once reveals that there is an underlying seriousness to the idea, that buried in all this frippery and oversimplifying is an urgent message, and the fact that it won’t take this seriousness seriously. And so there are some very beautiful insights that emerge from this quaintly doll-dress and pop-sock diary, many of the most powerful couched in this relationship between the hyperactive clowning Boris and the staid sort of distant melodrama of Jospehine. As a guy who has been in love with women with eating disorders, Boris’s hopeless engineering of some kind of help, as Jospehine sits with these very precise slices of apple gazing at them, and Boris is churning out all these demands that hide a very crude attempt at getting her to eat (things like “I eat all the time it’s easy” and “nothing would make me happier than you eating these”) and the disjuncture between the two character’s sense of time really revealing the loneliness of Josephine’s condition confronted with this forced hyperactive pop-psychology, I thought really brought home the powerlessness of intervention from the outside. That the disease has its own really immutable time. And what at first I thought was a slightly underwhelming absence of Jospshine’s prescence and charisma, how she didn’t really seem to do a lot, now on reflection seems quite a skillful commentary on both the isolation you mention, and the infantilised condition of the woman is chasing a particular type of girl’s body (and a sense of control and order which was the main theme) through these intractable pressures of norms of, not just beauty, but girlhood in its entirity. And Caroline Horton’s skill was to make this both funny, with her asides and the glances and expert comic mugging, but also tragic in its dolls house diffidence.
RH: Yeah, but the humour within the production struck me as perhaps its most problematic element. While the piece comes with this warning that serious matter is to be tackled, ‘don’t let that put you off’ its attempts to reach out and make anorexia accessible come with perhaps too many laughs, but laughs at the silliness of the slapstick of Boris and Sistahl, rather than ones which merge with and further help us engage with the difficult subject matter. Rather than drawing sarcastic laughs out of the falsities surrounding assumptions about mental health, we laugh instead at how Josephine boyfriend attempts to cope with his problematic situation. We laugh at the silliness and ridiculousness of the house Josephine builds around herself and illness. Yet neither of these targets feel as worthwhile as the topic of how mental health is discussed and dealt with in wider society. The production seems strangely unangry as if through a lens of medication. At points it seems like it might errupt – the highly effective doctors surgury scene – when Boris peeps in through the door and a doctor realises he has nothing to say to help Josephines illness. But even as hospitalisation takes place and Josephine is forbidden from locking her door, this lack of anger provides a slight distance from the subject matter, a distance that for the audience becomes harder to bridge as the comedic and whimsical aspects of the production remain.