From the very beginning of How (Not) to Live in Suburbia, Annie Siddons makes it clear that there is more than one London. When she speaks about her own grimy, busy, brilliant city, the video footage behind her is worlds away from the footage of zone 5 London that follows it. Her husband’s job uprooted Siddons and her family to Twickenham (‘Twickenham, Home of Rugby’, as she calls it), a leafy suburb that is, Siddons makes clear, far less fun, less wild and less brilliantly multicultural than the best of London.
Accompanied by videos made by Richard DeDomenici, Siddons unwinds a deeply personal story in which, after the collapse of her marriage, she stayed put in a place she loathed to keep from uprooting her daughters. She charts the agonies of moving away from friends and out to the suburbs: the disappointment of their cancelled visits, their ‘it’s-just-too-far’s, their brilliant lives burning brightly away in zone 2 while Siddons sits out in the sticks, increasingly crushed under the weight of her own loneliness.
It feels important to talk about these things. To talk about how, culturally, we’ve bound motherhood up so tightly with sacrifice that women find it hard to seek help when they have sacrificed far too much of themselves. To talk about how loneliness is self-perpetuating, how insane house prices and living costs can leave people stranded in the middle of nowhere with no support network, to talk about how the economic constraints of motherhood affects artists and their work.
And Siddons talks beautifully: there are a few stunning turns of phrase, and sections of How (Not) to Live in Suburbia feel vital. But the films make it a fragmented and tonally uneven hour. Siddons’s direct address is funny, but wounded, confessional and poetic – and while some of the films are a good complement (short sight gags, for instance, or montages that tick quietly away behind the main monologue), many of them feel intrusive: bitty and unexpected sketches that only serve to break up the show proper.
There are far more films than you expect, and this coupled with Siddons’s decision to have Adam Robertson play her in several of the more emotive sections drives the show into uncomfortable parody when it should sing. It also means that many of the show’s most important moments belong to somebody else, either DeDomenici or Robertson. The crowding round of Siddons’s beautiful monologue with other artists makes you wonder if this is still a difficult story for Siddons to tell – no surprise if true – and if perhaps these trappings are there to keep the show’s coruscating journey through Siddons’s emotional history from damaging her present mental health.
This means that, though it’s potentially understandable, the tonal mix doesn’t hang together, and a full half or even more of the show detracts from what you feel its real heart should be: Siddons’s words, beautiful and important and hard to hear, reminding you how easy it is to fall through the cracks of your own life.