It might be a rich mix of ingredients but Caroline Horton’s new play is anything but a Mess. Director Alex Swift adopts the giddy ‘we know a song about that’ style familiar from tatty children’s’ TV shows. It’s a risky approach and, with a less skilled company, could be used as a defensive shield against the hard issues being discussed or just become bloody irritating.
There are still times when the Company push their luck. Mess opens with the cast explaining that, as this is only the touring version of the show, it lacks the special effects that will be used when it reaches London. Seiriol Davies (who provides musical accompaniment, sound effects and dry observations) bluntly explains the symbolism of Fiammetta Horvat’s rather charming set in which a defensive castle turret has formed out of a teenager’s blankets and duvet.
The success of the play is a result of the sensitive handling of the subject matter and the unusual perspective taken by the Company. It is based on Caroline Horton’s teenage descent into, and recovery from, anorexia describing the subtle development of the condition and its initially misleading empowering effects. Although understated Horton’s performance as Josephine is deeply moving and perceptive. In a breathless rush Josephine explains how she used the tangential aspects of the condition (setting targets to lose weight) to offset her anxiety and, therefore, empower herself. Then in a marvellous sequence Horton spends several minutes with glistening eyes trying to force down a single slice of apple.
Hannah Boyde’s humane performance as best friend Boris gives the audience an insight into the difficulties faced by friends and family of someone with anorexia. Jumping from hysterical over-positive reactions to embarrassed, but entirely understandable, revulsion as she sees Josephine’s physical deterioration.
Swift’s relaxed direction allows the cast plenty of scope to interact and draw out surprising comedic aspects from material that could be dry or even depressing. Recognising her accompanist’s tendency to get carried away with the sound effects Horton interrupts a speech and scolds ‘There were no dolphins – not even small ones!’ There is also the fascinating detail of the play – in hospital Josephine, desperate to exercise, uses ‘ The Complete Works of Shakespeare’ to perform step-ups.
‘Mess’ takes an unusual but unflinching approach to a difficult subject without minimising its impact or mocking the effects upon sufferers or their associates. The result is a refreshingly irreverent play that refuses to give in to despair choosing instead to celebrate the ability of people to survive.