Writer: Caroline Horton
Director: Alex Swift
Reviewer: Lettie Mckie
There are some topics which it is almost impossible to address in theatre without falling into a trap. Drug addiction, homelessness and domestic abuse are all tricky, but one of the hardest issues to tackle with sensitivity, avoiding tired clichés or platitudes, is eating disorders.
The success of Mess, devised by Caroline Horton and company is that it plays to the expectation that it will fail in this way. Newly commissioned by BAC and Parabola Arts Centre, the premise of this one act show is that anorexia is not something people want to see a show about, the programme even states ‘ it’s about anorexia…but don’t let that put you off’. This irreverent, tongue in cheek approach is very effective.
This is a play within a play with the two characters Boris (Hannah Boyde) and Joesphine (Caroline Horton) telling the story of Josephine’s struggle with the disease and they begin by describing how the ‘real play’ will be performed when they get it into a West End Theatre. They are at pains to reassure us that we should not be alarmed by the subject matter. These actors are utterly charming and the hilarious intro sets a very high standard which is sustained throughout the hour long performance. Hannah Boyde is captivating as the hapless, kind-hearted Boris who’s attempts to help his friend during her illness are sometimes embarrassing, often ill-judged and always meant with the best of intentions. The chemistry between the pair, and their energetic performances, are what ensure that their early rapport with the audience is sustained and developed as the story progresses. Boyd’s wide-eyed, bumbling Boris is superbly balanced against Horton’s ethereal and fragile Josephine.
Mess is a confident, upbeat story with anorexia as its main theme but its characters are not two-dimensional puppets used to tell a bleak story about the cruelties of a eating disorders. Rather the characters personalities are primary, shining strongly from the outset in the superbly constructed opening scene, the quirky costumes, and the banter they develop with the onstage musician and sound artist Sistahl (Seiriol Davies). The dialogue is rich and well researched (with the help of experts from Maudsley hospital) and is full of small details which reveal interesting facts about Joesphine’s character such as what her favourite songs are and other more significant personality traits such as perfectionism and an inability to relax. This approach means that as we learn more about Josephine we begin to reach a better understanding of what anorexia is, and begin to address the much more complex issue of how she might learn to overcome it.
The set (Fiammetta Horvat) like the dialogue and costumes departs from the idea that this is play about anorexia, rather than about a very specific girl who happens to be suffering from the disease. Josephine sits on a Giant fluffy mound under a pink umbrella which comforts her and separates her from the world. The symbolism is explained by Sistahl, in keeping with the plays overarching glib approach, within the first five minutes; the mound is anorexia, an ever present and isolating presence in Josephine’s life.
By poking fun at itself this play delivers a deeply serious, complex exploration of anorexia without being overtly sombre. There are, of course, moments when comedy is not appropriate but these are made all the stronger by the fact that hilarity, embarrassment, love and happiness are just as much a part of this story as loneliness, isolation, fear and mental breakdown. The ending is challenging as it is made clear anorexia never entirely let’s its victims go. Uncompromising but not morose, honest but also hilarious, this heartfelt play was a delight to watch.