For maybe the first half of My Beautiful Black Dog, I wasn’t convinced. I mean, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt – when it reached me, I doused myself pretty liberally with the glitter that was being passed round the audience like a bottle of MD20/20 at the end of the kind of parties I keep somehow ending up at – but I wasn’t quite sure. Songs about depression? Really? Could be mega-twee, I thought.
It wasn’t, but the slow and steady unravelling of my cynicism still took about half an hour. Brigitte Aphrodite begins by being refreshingly straightforward about her depression, the ‘black dog’ that has plagued her in fits and starts since her early twenties, and by the end of the show she is so unflinchingly honest that it’s equally impossible to watch and to look away.
Along with her musical accompaniment and real-life partner, Quiet Boy, Aphrodite picks through the realities of mental illness song-by-song, forthright and funny about waves of anxiety in Waterstones and self-medicating with alcohol. I was a little concerned by how London-centric it feels for something being performed in Edinburgh – Aphrodite is from Bromley and now lives in East London, and several songs are evocative of that Shoreditch, mid-20s, party-going lifestyle – but actually it barely matters.
What becomes clear early on, instead, is just how hungry the audience are to hear Aphrodite talk and sing about her experiences. There’s a palpable relief in the crowd at seeing somebody so young and talented be so honest about how fucking hard she found it just to get out of bed.
There are moments in the unpicking of Aphrodite’s journey through mental illness towards relative mental health that are reminiscent of Caroline Horton’s Mess, especially when she goes out of her way to underline the fact that this illness will never simply go away, even though things are better now than they have been. And yet where Mess felt sculpted and theatrical and self-aware, and none of those are bad things, this feels altogether far more – well, messy. And that’s no bad thing either.
Aphrodite dresses like a tropical bird and she sings and bellows and raps and makes jokes, and then abruptly she will retreat into the fly case at the back of the stage, bring it down on her head and disappear. Like that, we know not only how it felt for her to be forced to retreat into herself, but how it felt for Aphrodite’s loved ones to lose her to this cannonball of sadness that hit her in the chest at 23 – she’s so alive, it feels as though all the air has been sucked out of the room when she goes away.
There’s a particularly affecting section where we hear the voicemail messages Aphrodite’s mother, father, grandmother, boyfriend, brother and friends all left for her when she shut herself away, and in privileging their voices and their experience of her illness as much as her own, Aphrodite has created a show that is fundamentally generous. I’ve never seen an audience reaction quite like it: people around me were crying and laughing at the same time for probably more than half the show.
Because this isn’t theatre, really, and even trying to review it makes me feel a bit of a fraudster. Aphrodite isn’t acting. The man with her on stage isn’t pretending to be her boyfriend. It’s all real and difficult for them to talk about, and they are doing it anyway because they think it’s important, and the lack of artifice is pretty remarkable. They aren’t trying to manipulate us, they’re just opening a door to their lives and inviting us in for an hour. By the end, Aphrodite’s face is tear-streaked with liquid eyeliner and glitter, pushing the hair out of her face and half-choking because she’s crying so hard, and you think – God, this isn’t acting, they’ve turned out the pockets of their actual lives for us.
I mean, obviously there are songs and costumes and everything, but it’s all just trappings, really; I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so emotionally honest on stage before. In all its glorious messiness, My Beautiful Black Dog can feel a bit unfinished and rough and fragmented, but it seems disingenuous to focus on those things when this show is basically, in its hardest moments, a howl of pain, and when the people around you are responding to this absolute honesty with the most amazing love. I saw at least three separate women of about Aphrodite’s age hug her after the show had finished, all of them in floods of tears.
The glitter we put on like warpaint at the start of the show collected in my inner elbows and on my cheekbones and in my hair, so that for hours afterwards it would shake out onto the ground whenever I moved my head, and people kept telling me about it, even strangers:You’re glittery. It’s weird to keep being reminded that I was there, because the whole experience felt sort of dreamlike pretty soon after I left the room, and the visual imagery it’s left me with is so colourful and joyous that I can’t really believe it was a show about life-ruining misery. It can’t be all that easy to make your black dog look beautiful, but Aphrodite managed that and far, far more.