Theatre is full of shows on mental health. Some offer deep, thoughtful perspectives; some tackle very specific aspects; many focus whole shows around them. And sometimes a show comes along that doesn’t profess to know the answer: it just sets out to show how normal having mental health issues can be, and that sometimes there isn’t much more you can do to solve other people’s problems, except just be there, ready to make pancakes at 3 o’clock in the morning. Because pancakes make you happy right? Hannah Baker’s ever-so-lovely Banter Jar really is that show.
Baker is a bundle of pure energy and excitement. Dare I say, there is more than a little Jodie Whittaker in her as she leaps around. I half expected her to pull out a sonic screwdriver and declare everything is brilliant. Every inch of the Lion and Unicorn’s stage is utilised around her. One corner becomes her busking spot outside Poundland, while at the front is where she drops the mattress to, you know, “do it” with new boyfriend Zeck. And dead centre, a chair becomes the bus, as the pie man shouts out his question of “who ate all the pies?” Everywhere else, she leaps and dances around in, as if the stage really is the hottest club in Coventry – at least from the perspective of a naïve 18-year-old.
Because that is what Baker is in this story; just completing A-levels, excited about life, a little naïve and trying her very best to be nice. Why else would she constantly give away the five pounds she gets whilst busking, to a homeless man? And the story she tells us is all true. Ish. It’s her coming-of-age story as she navigates all the things normal 18-year-olds go through; relationships, sex, wanting to be liked by the coolest girl at school, more sex, parties – you know the list!
What’s so refreshing in Baker’s tale, though, is how matter of fact it all sounds, taking everything in her stride as if it’s all perfectly normal. And in many ways, it probably is: these are age old issues we’ve all faced in one way or another, and she never makes much of a drama out of them, instead guiding us along with both wit and moments to reflect. She subtly drops mention of self-harm into the conversation as if it is just a thing all teenage girls experience, because it is more common than we wish to believe. Although she later discovers that for some it’s a whole lot more serious than the little cuts she does to feel more alive.
Then there is the psychosis that her exciting new boyfriend suffers, and which in her naivety she believes she can solve. As with everything else, it’s not forced into the narrative, it’s eased in gently as just another part of growing up and learning she cannot solve everyone’s problems.
Baker is a delightful entertainer and, as Banter Jar demonstrates, a great storyteller. We see her grow up from naïve, wide-eyed teen to, well, a little less naive! Her parting words – that it’s not your job to keep someone alive; all you can do is be there to make pancakes at 3am – really sum up what she has learnt in this journey, as she finally departs home to head to university. It’s a lovely, simple sentiment and one that many more of us could benefit from realising. Because yes, pancakes really can be the best, can’t they?
Written by: Hannah Baker
Directed by: Chris Larner
Banter Jar plays at Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 14 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.