There’s a very personal feel to the two plays by Rosalind Blessed currently being performed in rep at the Old Red Lion – and it’s no surprise to learn that they’re both based on the writer’s own experience. The first, Lullabies for the Lost, is a new piece directed by Zoë Ford Burnett, which explores the power of open conversation in the battle against mental illness. The second, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, is directed by Caroline Devlin and depicts the unravelling of an abusive marriage. Both very powerfully written and performed, neither shies away from the tough issues with which they’re dealing, and while they’re far from easy viewing, they each make a valuable contribution to a vitally important discussion.
Lullabies for the Lost uses the metaphor of a room in which eight characters find themselves trapped. It’s not clear what the room is, or indeed how they got there, but the key point is that to get out, they have to reach some point of understanding or resolution with their own mental health issues. And in order to do that, they have to repeatedly tell their stories to their fellow “residents”. Some, like Robin (Rosalind Blessed) and Ash (Duncan Wilkins), who each describe their experience of eating disorders, have been there for years. Larry (Chris Porter) has just become the newest arrival, as he wrestles with crippling social anxiety. Andy (Chris Pybus) has spent months in bed with depression, viewing the world only through the appearance-obsessed filter of social media. Nerys (Kate Tydman) started hoarding after suffering multiple miscarriages. Sarah (Helen Bang) is plagued by emotional sensitivity and low self-esteem into a lonely, unsatisfying existence. And brothers Jez and Tim (Nick Murphey and Liam Mulvey) each feel they need to put on a brave, “manly” face for the other, not realising they’d take much better care of each other if they just talked.
The metaphor is clever and well set up, and while the piece is essentially a series of monologues, the content of each is so well written and the performances so compelling, that the format never struggles to hold our attention. Where the play struggles slightly is in its conclusion, which certainly packs an emotional punch, but feels somehow underdeveloped and a little too neat. The words of Ma, an unexpected extra character played by Blessed’s own mother Hildegard Neil, are warm, wise and important, but it’s not made clear enough why, after so long grappling with their problems, it should be her who suddenly breaks through for so many of the characters.
As the more established play, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People suffers no such issue. The story of Robin – played by Blessed and importantly, the same character we met in Lullabies for the Lost – and James (Duncan Wilkins) is both gripping and desperately sad. This piece allows us to see more of Blessed herself, and the emotional intensity of her words really resonates; it’s clear they come from a very real and heartfelt place.
The play begins on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, as James excitedly prepares a romantic meal for his wife. He’s funny and charming, and it seems we’re looking at a loving husband. But the clues are already there, in the way he speaks about Robin, that all is not quite as it seems – although the truth, when it’s revealed, still has the power to shock us. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how a seemingly loving relationship began to crumble, and explore the factors on both sides that contribute to creating a toxic, abusive environment.
As is also the case with Lullabies for the Lost, the play tackles difficult issues, but nonetheless does so with humour and a degree of optimism and faith that human nature will prevail. In The Delights of Dogs, not unexpectedly, this lighter content is inspired by the writer’s love of dogs and appreciation for the support they provide. Even at her lowest, Robin can still talk to her old dog Ben, who listens without judgment and responds only with unconditional love. In Lullabies, too, a dog provides unexpected relief to one of the characters, and ultimately this new-found friendship allows them to become the only one who leaves of their own accord.
Another factor that unites the two plays is the way the characters speak out directly to the audience. This is more overt in The Delights of Dogs, but in both cases we become a key player as the characters bare their souls, allowing them to speak out and share their innermost struggles without fear of judgment or ridicule. And so they do, holding very little back, which again reveals how much the stories are grounded in real experiences. Some of the details are gruesome, others shocking, others just very sad – but each helps to educate the audience a little more about conditions and experiences that many of us will know little or nothing about.
Watching one play, let alone both together, makes for an intense and at times quite distressing few hours in the theatre. The content is intensely real and raw, and shines a spotlight on a variety of mental health issues in a very personal but accessible way. A tough but fascinating watch.