As the playwright, Duncan Macmillan, said himself, the play ‘is not a philosophy for living; it’s not a solution for depression; it’s just a way of talking about it’. Director Ella Kennedy, producer Maya Wilson and solo actor Tom Mitchell cleverly stitched together a piece which responds to the contemporary anxieties surrounding mental health and the effects it can have on those witnessing someone experience it. The text is a challenging piece to transcend authentically onto stage without making it too gimmicky, but the production team confronted the stigma and the reluctance of blunt conversation by immersing the audience into quick, humorous and provocatively thoughtful performance.
The play tells a simple story of a 7-year-old boy attempting to comprehend his mother’s debilitating depression and multiple suicide attempts. Director, Ella Kennedy made sure to take audiences on both an intimate and genuine exploration of the affects mental health can have on a child as he tries to navigate through a life without a maternal presence.
From the moment you walked through the stage@leeds doors you were invited to be a part of the action of the play. Notes with non-chronological numbers were suspended from the ceiling, lit up with a dull light from the kind of vintage lamps you’d find in your grandparent’s home positioned down the walkway. Roller-coaster. Ice cream. Films better than the book there were adapted from. Old people holding hands. They were all there, all the little things that make life worth living. Audiences were encouraged to add their own ‘brilliant thing’ which really encapsulated the innovative and immersive style of the performance.
Tom Mitchell skilfully commanded the stage for just under an hour, making the whole experience come-and-go in a flash. His quick-witted humour and subtle improvisations brought to life an honest and immediately likeable character. Mitchell’s interaction with audiences began before even taking our seats, as he explained to us we would be instructed to call out whatever was on the piece of paper handed to us as we entered. The breaking down of wall between actor and audience worked particularly well to set the empathetic tone and style of the performance.
The space sat audiences around the edge, giving plenty of room for Mitchell to prance, dance and run around the stage, ensuring the intimacy of Macmillan’s text was felt at every moment. A remarkable feat for any actor and one Mitchell handled with sensitivity and genuine laugh-out-loud humour. It’s hard not to laugh when an unsuspecting audience member is made to take off their shoe and sock to make a sock-hand puppet.
The most poignant and well delivered moment of the play carried itself in the form of one simple line: ‘suicide is contagious’. Mitchell let the words hang in the room just long enough to pack the punch before he was off on another one of his ramblings. Hoisin duck pancakes. The smell of old books. And so on.
The production team at stage@leeds handled the difficult themes with sensitively and responsibility, turning moments of crippling frankness into quick, responsive wit. If you didn’t leave the theatre feeling connected to a room full of strangers, then you’re doing theatre wrong.
Image credit: stage.leeds.ac.uk