The premise behind A Pint Sized Conversation is to take a difficult, complex topic – in this case, mental illness – and to place it within the informal, cosy confines of a pub. Except that whereas previously the company brought the show to an actual pub, in this instance it has been brought back to a theatre space.
This seems a little counter-intuitive to the company’s original idea. After all, a pub is a place where you can engage in a dialogue on equal terms with everybody else. In a theatre, though, you mostly have to shut up and listen. The company are well aware of this slight incongruity; they bashfully offer up crisps in a humble attempt to create a pub vibe, and they gingerly sip from their beers in between all the stage lifts and dramatic monologues. It’s an attempt to make the space feel a little less formal, but they don’t quite pull it off.
Because, ultimately, this is theatre with a capital T. It’s got sketches, stagecraft, characters, choreography and an abundance of fairy-lights. The audience are often addressed but the level of real interaction is minimal; we wrote down three things that made us happy on the way in and a couple were read out, but that was basically it. Any interaction there was felt superfluous to the content of the show. And we certainly weren’t participants in this conversation.
The four performers onstage move between their own personal stories of depression – or rather, their first-hand encounters of having a loved one suffer from depression. Each of them talks about a friend or family member with incredible frankness, offering a quiet insight in the often shadowy realm of mental illness.
Curtains are pulled open and walls dissolved as we’re invited into the intimate settings of family homes, to share in a very real experience. Nothing is filtered out, even the stuff that’s hard to talk about. Every one of the ensemble articulates themselves wonderfully, but my one concern is that these moments are occasionally overacted. We don’t need any hamming-up, or pre-rehearsed hand-wringing. The stories speak for themselves. They are the most honest and engaging part of the show.
Interweaving these stories are a series of skits which vary in quality and tone. There’s a bit all about the brain, where the cast take on the persona of the cerebral cortex and the pre-frontal lobe (or something like that) in a sort-of Neurology-lecture-meets-Inside-Out mash-up. But this sketch is never expanded on or used again, and the science jargon is pretty baffling.
Another confusing moment is when Tobias Grace grabs a deck of cards and performs a magic trick. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for understanding depression, but it just doesn’t land – and the trick itself is cumbersome and a bit naff. Moments that really deliver a punch are the more thought-out ensemble parts, like the fiery “we are angry” speech, which delves into the social and political issues surrounding mental health. Or the routine sequence, which evokes a sense of overwhelming loneliness and with a few tweaks, could be really powerful.
Overall, A Pint Sized Conversation tackles some challenging themes head-on with a great deal of insight and inventiveness. But there’s also a sense of throwing ideas at the fourth wall to see what’ll stick. Some of it works wonderfully, but lots falls flat. Ultimately – as with most things in life – I think it’d be better off at the pub.
Pub Talks Present: A Pint Sized Conversation was at The Boat Shed, Exeter, until July 11th. For more details, click here.