Alison Peebles was diagnosed with MS twelve years ago. An award-winning actress, director and writer Alison is also just another human being struggling with an unpredictable body and erratic emotions.
This dreamlike, verging on nightmarish, production is part-autobiography, part exploration of the fundamental connection between our bodies and what makes us human. In confrontation with the theme of MS it’s wildly, flamboyantly physical, as Alison is joined on stage by three impressively lithe dancers and a skipping young girl. It’s wrenchingly cruel at points, as the dancers cavort, leap and spin, gleefully exclaiming, “Alison, can you do this?” Yet Peebles maintains a strong presence, watching with a wry smile from the side of the stage, unashamed of her apparent jealousy and weakness. It is only once dancer Thomas J Baylis literally steals her place to take centre-stage, and her dazzling scarlet dress swirls as if to unleashes the burden of torment they have pressed upon her.
Yet as the production unfurls each dancer in turn reveals themselves to Alison; their hopes and dreams for the future and their own emotional and physical scars. Often in contrast to the stoic Peebles they undergo moments of emotional breakdown, verging on hysteria. They have their young, ‘perfect’ bodies and yet they’re unsatisfied with their lives, and those bodies. We’ve always something to cry about.
A devised production, seemingly derived from issues close to home for each of the young performers as well as Peebles, the ambitions and endeavors for stardom and fame are keenly expressed. Yet through an impressionistic, anarchic form, under stark hospital light, these fragmented dreams are revealed to be the chimeras they are.
Throughout the chaos Alison is witty, intelligent, and glamorous even in her dressing gown. Early in the production she describes herself so, yet in brutal, quivering past tense; it’s a personal eulogy. Yet often terse and always proud, Alison is never one to ask for sympathy or aid, particularly when a frantic and ungracious nurse demands it of her.
While a devised production, the concept by Peebles herself, the directorial hand of Lies Pauwels has a strong and unmistakable grip. Elements such as the use of microphones introduce a sense of detachment and self-conscious theatricality that is highly reminiscent of Pauwels’ Knives in Hens of last year. The set designer on both productions, Chloe Lamford, conjures something similarly oppressive and claustrophobic; boxed in, in a chilly mint green hospital waiting room. The glimmer of a silver tinsel curtain seen above the back wall, expressing the nostalgia for the lime light, as if someone had forgotten to take it down.
Overall it’s definitely an impressive and courageous production, if, perhaps excessively alienating until Peebes’ final, heartfelt confrontation directly to the audience. In this simple reflective moment a mellow Peebles seems at one with her predicament and her inevitable future, undeterred for the present and striving for life.