Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 25 February 2018

Review: The Shape of the Pain at Battersea Arts Centre

20 February – 10 March 2018

An attempt to articulate: Henry Gleaden reviews Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe’s show about Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

Henry Gleaden
The Shape of the Pain at Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: The Other Richard.

The Shape of the Pain at Battersea Arts Centre. Photo: The Other Richard.

There’s always a moment during periods of ill-health when I think I’ll never be not-ill again. When I’m really hurting, the sensations of the body are so immediate, so overwhelming, so all-consuming.

It’s just too painful.

The feeling stretches out forever until all I am and all I ever have been is infinite retching, trembling, sobbing pain.

And then I get better.

I used to look at my Nan and wonder what it would be like to think that the pain would last forever, and be right. My attempts at understanding how this might feel never lasted long. It made me too uncomfortable, it was too disturbing to articulate.

It’s just too painful.

The Shape of the Pain is an attempt to articulate. In the beginning we hear a voice. It is the voice of Hannah McPake, whose sole company we are about to spend eighty minutes in. Although we can’t hear or see her, it also the voice of Rachel Bagshaw, whose lived experience we are going to attempt to understand, and Chris Thorpe, whose words we hear and read. All the words of the play appear on eight vertical metal panels at the back of the stage. Alongside the words are colours and shapes and shadows and light, which try to visually communicate the pain. The score will attempt the same, with sound.

I’m describing this to you as it was described to me: simply, and at the beginning of the play. Because the play is about pain, but it isn’t trying to be painful. It isn’t trying to shock, or traumatise. It cares. This information is given to us freely and immediately, because it wants us to feel safe. We are told that this is an experiment in communication. I never feel that I am being experimented on.

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is a neuropathic condition that causes constant chronic pain. Pain is shit, but it can usually make a strong case for its continued existence by being necessary and useful. It alerts us when we are in danger, when something needs attention. Pain has probably saved my life, and yours. Cheers, pain. With CRPS though, there is no danger, no reason for the pain. There’s been a mistake. And the pain simply is. Always. Fuck you, pain.

None of this is literal we are told. But actually, this production attempts admirably to create literally a feeling that it admits is inexplicable. It is Melanie Wilson’s soundscape that most viscerally communicates the aches or spikes of pain, sometimes screaming and sometimes barely perceptible. Voiceovers glitch, become inaudible as suffering makes it harder to concentrate. The performer is in dialogue with a feeling which has been given physical form. She is trapped in a square of light that is closing in on her. She radiates throbbing red. She is covered in small holes, enough to make a tryptophobic squirm, then these holes vibrate until she is nothing but static on a television, unfiltered information picked up by a dysfunctional antenna, impossible to process. She is desperate, trying everything to make us understand.

Sometimes, she relives a relationship with a boyfriend. In these sections, we find a narrative, the thing that makes this a play and not a brilliantly theatrical lecture. Love is difficult when your pain is a constant barrier to your partner’s complete understanding of you. But actually, maybe being in love is difficult enough anyway. The chronic pain is irrelevant because with love there’s always going to be something persistent and recurring that gets in the way. Chronic distance, or chronic miscommunication, chronic different schedules, chronic wandering eye, chronic in-laws, chronic forgetting of anniversaries, chronic not feeling the same as I did before, chronic maybe we tried our best but we’re just incompatible. It’s something different for everyone, she says.

As the relationship disintegrates it seems that the problem is not that someone she loves can never truly understand how her pain feels. No, the problem is the guilt she feels for wanting to be understood. Because the only way to really understand the pain would be to feel it. And how could you ask that of someone you love?

It’s just too painful.

The Shape of the Pain is on until 10 March 2018 at the Battersea Arts Centre. Click here for more details. 


Henry Gleaden is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Shape of the Pain at Battersea Arts Centre Show Info

Directed by Rachel Bagshaw

Written by Chris Thorpe

Cast includes Hannah McPake

Original Music Melanie Wilson



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.