Oh joy of joys – another play about mental health! Another chance to either be heartbroken at what’s to come or angry at another poor depiction of a subject matter all too often mishandled. Except that to call this a play about mental health is only half a truth: it is so much more. these words is about how we cope with the harsh realities of life and how at times we fail to say what we really want or need to have said before it is all too late.
Siblings Sam and Charlie, or A and B (a nod to the play within a play format), are dealing with a lot. Mum’s dying, Charlie’s struggling with his own demons, and Sam is having to look after both of them. We know this because we meet the pair in hospital, Charlie being treated for an attempted suicide, whilst mum is just down the corridor. But maybe she isn’t dying, maybe they have found a miraculous cure. And Charlie is getting better too. Things are all looking on the up. Except…
Much like the game of Jenga that the pair keep returning to, things are a little unstable, likely to collapse at any moment, only held together by Sam’s strength. At least that’s her version of things.
Georgie Bailey’s play is full of typical Chewboy weirdness. Nothing is quite what it seems. The play within a play stops and restarts whenever Sam doesn’t like how it’s going, this time more positively. No, mum isn’t dying, they’ve found a cure. No, she didn’t just say those words you shouldn’t say to someone with mental illness, so simply rewind and try again. What we see is a sanitised version of events, Sam refusing to accept the realities of what’s really happening. We even get canned laughter, suggesting that this is a play in her own imagination.
The weirdness and confusion of it all eventually gives way to clarity as Charlie finally demands they tell the truth, without the sugar-coating. The pieces already presented should allow us to know where this is heading, but nonetheless it’s still heartbreaking as we hurtle into the void.
Tessa Wong and Daniel Crespin are a perfect duo. Each takes command of one half of the play, ensuring it is told in the manner they want. It means each actor is asked to play almost two different roles, one dominant, one subservient, and both do it beautifully. Wong’s distressing sobs and tears on her cheeks, which we can clearly see in the intimate space, feel totally genuine as she fights to deny the truth. Crespin is equally as adapt at his role-flips, whilst his impromptu dance routine is both delightful and surreal, helped greatly by Lucy Betts’ soft touch in directing that makes good use of the tight space to give things a much larger feel than actually exists.
The (uncredited) sound design adds further layers of weirdness, whilst Hal Darling’s design is subtle but gorgeous. Cheng Keng’s lighting is used to great effect in emphasising the vastness of the void in their little world.
Mental illness is frequently tackled in fringe theatre, and too often by people without the right tools to do so. The reality is that it doesn’t always have happy endings and we need to accept and understand why. these words is as honest a play about the harsh realities as you are likely to see. It’s a play not to be approached lightly. We may start with Sam’s sugar-coated version, but we end with Charlie’s truer one. It’s beautiful. It’s heartbreaking. But how I already want to watch it all over again, to put those pieces back together.
Written by: Goergie Bailey
Directed by: Lucy Betts
Lighting design by: Cheng Keng
Produced by: Chewboy Productions
these words that’ll linger like ghosts till the day we drop down dead plays at The Pleasance until 24 June. Further information and tickets here.