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Mess, Battersea Arts Centre

Caroline Horton and Company

Directed by Alex Swift
★★★★
Pros: A lively combination of a serious topic with a wacky play and enthusiastic characters.
Cons: I’m not entirely sure the idea of it not being the ‘real show’ was necessary or worked (unless it really is moving into a bigger, more impressive venue).
Our Verdict: Three strong actors perform a script by a writer who has a deep understanding of the subject.
Courtesy of the Battersea Arts Centre
Caroline Horton understands eating disorders. This is not only clear from the fact that she herself suffers from one, but she has also written a piece which, while quirky and off the wall, is equally straight talking, hard-edged and effective. Mess – its premise being that this actually isn’t the “real show” because that will be in a real theatre with theatrical tricks such as the ability to fly and a large orchestra (instead of the put-upon keyboardist Sistahl, played by Seiriol Davies) – tells the story of Josephine, a young woman struggling with the mental and physical effects of anorexia.
Caroline Horton plays the semi-autobiographical character of Josephine. Her portrayal was deep and realistic. Perhaps drawing massively on her own experience allowed the script to be so real. The many pauses and silences were utilised amazingly to show both how ineffective society is at talking about it and the strength needed to actually admit you have an eating disorder. These were often both drawn out and cut short by the wonderfully eccentric character of Boris (played by Hannah Boyde).
As I watched I felt a certain level of anxiety, silently willing Josephine to get better. Cleverly, Horton manages to evoke this from the audience while at the same time keeping Josephine as a relatable character. Instead of feeling frustration at what could be perceived as stubbornness in her inability to recognise her illness, I gained, almost sub-consciously, an understanding about anorexia and those suffering from other eating disorders.
What was a particularly fantastic use of theatre was staged at the very end. Boris, ever the enthusiast, attempts to finish the show on an epic show stopper (or at least to explain the ‘epic show-stopper’ they’ll have in the real show) but Josephine stops him. She explains that the show can never end because that would suggest that there is a happily ever after, whereas in reality eating disorder sufferers have to deal with their illness for the rest of their lives. An emotional Boris blows up and explains to Josephine that everyone, not just those suffering from anorexia, has rubbish days and that 70% of the time our lives are mediocre and we aren’t on top of the world, but that that is ok so they can finish the show. He makes it ok that she has set-backs. Hannah Boyde, who shines throughout the show, really produces a spectacular performance at this point. The speech is both cross at Josephine while at the same time being entirely sympathetic to her illness, a fine balance.
Overall this show is worth a visit for the performances. While the script is strong and effective on anorexia I wasn’t convinced by the actors breaking the fourth wall to tell us about their visions for a bigger and better show. There are however very special moments, the more serious ones coming from Caroline Horton while Hannah Boyde steals the show.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Mess runs at the Battersea Arts Centre until the 1st June 2013.

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