Review: Sophie at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Written and performed by Julia Pagett, Sophie is a story about mental illness and its lasting and wide-reaching impact. At just 20 minutes, the play’s over almost before we know it, but nonetheless provides plenty of food for thought.

Though Sophie is the central character, it’s not she who tells her story; that duty falls to her twin sister, who we first encounter looking through old photos and smiling fondly, while a stereo at her feet plays Puff the Magic Dragon all the way to its sad final verse. Although she’s surrounded by these memories (the set also contains an old bike, which later prompts her to reminisce about the one time she saw her sister truly happy), when she speaks, she reveals a far more complex cocktail of feelings towards Sophie: love, anger, grief, remorse and confusion all make an appearance in this short, heartfelt monologue.

Though it’s never specifically named, the implication is that Sophie was suffering from an eating disorder, and the play focuses predominantly on the ideas of perception and reality: how we see ourselves compared to how others view us. We’re told more than once that Sophie was beautiful, and it’s her failure to see this, more than anything, that her sister can’t understand.

The fact that Sophie’s a twin helps to explore this theme of distorted perceptions in more depth. We hear so much about their mysterious, unbreakable bond that it’s easy to think of twins as two halves of one whole, mirror images of each other – emotionally, even if not physically. The fact that despite this, Sophie still fails to see her true self reflected back at her reveals the undiscriminating power of mental illness, and heightens the tragedy of one twin being left behind.

Under the direction of Keir Mills, there’s a confrontational, defiant tone to Julia Pagett’s delivery that suggests Sophie’s sister knows what she’s saying will be considered shocking and controversial, as she admits to believing her twin was being ungrateful, and to refusing to admit Sophie had a problem or to help even when she begged her to. Even now, as she struggles with her feelings of guilt and grief, that powerful rage still simmers beneath the surface, ready to explode. As distressing as this is to see, it’s a brave, sincere and very moving approach to talking about mental illness that forces us to consider how damaging it can also be for those not directly affected.

I wish the play had been longer – largely because it clearly had a huge amount to say, and felt like it was only just getting going when it ended. It would be great to see Sophie developed into a longer piece that builds on this strong foundation and really digs into the important issues raised.

Sophie is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 27th August.

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