Review: Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre

Despite great strides in awareness over recent years, there’s still a huge amount we’ve yet to learn about mental illness. But if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that it can strike anyone, at any time – even those who seem to have it all together.

Cam, the central character in Paper Creatures’ new play Section 2, is one of those people. At school he was the golden boy, the star of the rugby team; now he’s in the army, and has been in a steady relationship with his girlfriend for five years. Nothing particular seems to have happened, although there are unproven suspicions, but despite all this somehow he’s ended up being sectioned. That was 28 days ago, and today is the day that Cam – along with his girlfriend Kay, key worker Rachel, and friend Pete – will find out if he can go home. The play takes place on the ward in real time, and as the minutes tick away on Cam’s 28th day, we get an informative and moving glimpse into the workings of a system that’s rarely discussed, on stage or indeed anywhere.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Section 2 was written by Peter Imms in response to a personal experience he had when a school friend was sectioned, and then developed collaboratively with Paper Creatures in association with Mind, the mental health charity. As such, Nathan Coenen’s portrayal of Cam’s fragile mental state feels both sensitive and authentic: one moment he seems fine, the next he’s forgotten how to breathe; his meds make him forgetful, he seems frequently on the verge of tears, and when he hugs someone, he clings on to them like he’s drowning. The frustrating fact that we don’t know what caused his breakdown only enhances this realism, reminding us that where mental health is concerned, sometimes there simply aren’t neat, easy answers.

The play also examines Kay, Rachel and Pete’s different responses to what’s happened; in fact the balance of the script is such that this is just as much their story as it is Cam’s. Imms moves the characters around very naturally between two rooms, which allows us to witness one-on-one interactions between each pair, and get to know all the characters a little better. Alexandra Da Silva adopts an air of weary resignation as Kay arrives for yet another visit, but we soon realise that behind her tough exterior she’s struggling to keep a lid on her own fear and distress in order to protect the man she loves. She clashes frequently with Esmé Patey-Ford’s Rachel, mistaking her calm professionalism for a lack of empathy, and irritated that Rachel seems more able than she is to establish a meaningful connection with Cam.

This atmosphere of simmering tension is brought to a head by the intervention of Pete, a first time visitor who hasn’t seen Cam for five years. Played by Jon Tozzi, Pete is perhaps the most relatable of the characters: way out of his depth but with an obvious desire to understand, he still maintains a fragile hope that he can somehow find the magic button that will make everything better.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Section 2 is an important and timely piece of theatre, raising awareness of the far-reaching impact of mental illness, and sectioning in particular. More than that though, it’s a play about friendship and human relationships; though it’s undoubtedly difficult to watch at times, there’s something very uplifting about seeing so many loved ones lining up to support Cam on his road to recovery, each in their own individual way. Sensitively written and performed, this powerful play is well worth a visit.

Section 2 is at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season, on Tuesdays and Fridays until 7th July.

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Interview: Jon Tozzi, Section 2

Paper Creatures Theatre was founded by actors Nathan Coenen and Jon Tozzi on a mutual love of new writing, truthful storytelling and innovative theatre. Their mission is to tell simple, compelling and bold stories that hold up a mirror to the millennial generation.

“The media often portrays millennials as social media-fixated, self-involved and careless of the society in which we find ourselves,” explains Jon. “Paper Creatures is committed to making theatre that breaks away from that stereotype and digs deeper. Good theatre for us is about storytelling. We lead with the idea that the story should be the primary focus from which everything else springs. Our shows aim to provoke, engage and encourage discussion after having left the auditorium.”

And they’re hoping to do just that with their second show, Section 2, which explores the often sensitive subject of mental health, and in particular aims to shine a light on the topic of sectioning. “Mental health is thankfully an issue that is gaining a brighter spotlight and focus in recent years, especially with depression and anxiety,” says Jon. “However, not much is said about sectioning, a treatment that is increasingly required, particularly among those aged 18 – 35, not to mention those who work in the arts.

Section 2 is a part verbatim story about a young man named Cam, the golden-boy in high school, who is sectioned under the mental health act, but no one can figure out why. Taking place in real time on potentially the final day of his sectioning, we follow a glaringly insightful truth into the process, challenges and effects of sectioning, on the patient but also his key worker, girlfriend and best friend.

“Sectioning is a subject that is rarely talked about in theatre, and definitely not in such an honest and revealing way. When Peter Imms, the writer, approached us with the initial story, we felt it important to take the opportunity to shed some light on the subject and tackle its effects head on. The fact that this piece was inspired by a personal encounter of our playwright means the approach to the text is much more truthful and raw in comparison to many other mental health plays. Section 2 is told in real-time, allowing audience members to experience every joy, hope, silence and heartbreak right there along with the characters – as if they were in the room with them. The play oozes subtext and Pete’s writing style allows for lots of exploration for the director and actors to explore this in various ways through each performance.”

Photo credit: Monika Jastrzebska

The production began life in September 2017 as ten pages of script and a short verbatim piece from a personal experience Peter had with sectioning. “Since then, we’ve done what we do best: given Pete the time and creative support necessary to write the play Section 2 has become,” says Jon. “This included several read throughs with different actors and creatives listening in, an R&D week away in Wittering, and taking part in A Pleasance Scratch at the Pleasance Theatre to gain some useful feedback. We work extremely collaboratively and have given the piece the time and dedication it needs to be performance ready. The key for us was to approach this play and the subject matter with sensitivity and a clear understanding, so lots of research was undertaken and it has been invaluable; we hope that comes across after having watched the play.

“In today’s day and age, it’s important, particularly as millennials, that we continue to open our minds and expand our knowledge of a lot of key issues that affect many people in our society, such as mental health. What Section 2 will give you is a brave and truthful insight into the world of sectioning, at the same time as letting you come away with a hopeful outlook on how we as humans can help break the stigma attached to mental health and how we as a theatre community can help support this. What makes this piece so special is that we have had support from MIND, the mental health charity during the script development stages, so what we are bringing to The Bunker is a play that accurately depicts the inner workings of a mental health hospital and the emotional journey of those that are a part of it.

“We want our audiences to leave with a greater awareness and knowledge of sectioning and, with that, the ability and willingness to reach out to those in their lives who suffer from mental health conditions and become a part of their support network. Something as simple as an informed conversation can help sufferers immensely.

“Good theatre is about connection and we hope that there will be at least one moment in the piece which the audience is able to connect and empathise with. We also strongly encourage audiences to stick around after to discuss the play with us so we can begin the conversation regarding mental health.”

Following the success last year of their debut production, Flood, Paper Creatures are excited to be bringing their new project to The Bunker as part of the Breaking out season. “The Bunker has been attracting a young, vibrant and, most importantly, diverse crowd since their debut show which we saw back in 2016,” says Jon. “Just sitting in the space, there is a distinct buzz and community feel. Having the opportunity to share our stories with this kind of audience is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us. The performance space itself will lend itself perfectly to the production as the audience will be looking in on the action of the play, giving a fly on the wall type feel.

“To be in repertory theatre for a month with five other emerging new-writing theatre companies is also an absolute privilege for us here at Paper Creatures Theatre. The chance to meet and work alongside these different creatives, each with their unique approach to their craft, has taught us a lot and given us the opportunity to expand our audience. We hugely appreciate and champion The Bunker Theatre’s efforts to make this happen – more needs to be done to support new companies and this is one hell of a start.”

Get your tickets now for Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8.30pm from 11th June to 7th July.

Review: In the Shadow of the Mountain at the Old Red Lion Theatre

There is no one size fits all when it comes to mental illness, and in Felicity Huxley-Miners’ In the Shadow of the Mountain we see two very different manifestations in the story of one extremely dysfunctional relationship. First, we meet Rob, who’s just found out his girlfriend slept with his best mate and is so devastated he’s thinking about throwing himself under a train – until Ellie explodes into his life and makes it her mission to save him. One thing leads to another, and Rob ends up back at her place… but Ellie has problems of her own, and as her behaviour becomes more and more erratic Rob starts to wonder what he’s got himself into.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

On an otherwise fairly minimal set from Emily Megson, low-hanging “clouds” made out of crumpled paper covered in scrawled handwriting are an early clue that all is not well – and it rapidly becomes clear that Rob and Ellie’s relationship isn’t a healthy one, although it’s not initially obvious exactly why. The play is clever in the way it tackles our assumptions, and it’s only as it comes to an end that we begin to appreciate why Ellie behaves the way she does, and that her mood swings and manipulative behaviour aren’t something she can control. The seemingly unrealistic intensity of the relationship – eight days in the two are already talking love and marriage – also makes more sense with the benefit of hindsight, although it’s still never quite explained why Rob stays as long as he does, when he’s clearly uncomfortable with the speed at which things are moving and his increasing isolation from friends and family.

It’s interesting to note that although the play does make it clear Ellie isn’t well, the only way we know the exact cause – Borderline Personality Disorder – is through the notes in the programme; her diagnosis is never given in the play itself. This is obviously a deliberate decision, since Rob asks outright and Ellie declines to answer, and in some ways it feels right to avoid sticking a label on her. That said, the play’s final scene feels underdeveloped, and perhaps misses an opportunity to raise awareness of a condition that can so easily be misinterpreted.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

There’s also an issue with balance in the story, which becomes increasingly focused on Ellie, leaving Rob and his problems rather out in the cold. Both Felicity Huxley-Miners and David Shears give good performances, and it’s refreshing to see a play about a toxic relationship where the male character doesn’t have the upper hand. But with Ellie stealing pretty much every scene as everyone waits to see what she’ll do next, we get to know little about Rob as a character – which is perhaps why it’s so difficult to put a finger on why he sticks around as long as he does.

In the Shadow of the Mountain takes important steps towards raising awareness of the broad spectrum of mental illness, and Borderline Personality Disorder in particular, and Richard Elson’s production does a good job of capturing, at different moments, the emotional turmoil experienced by both Rob and Ellie. There are areas of the play that could benefit from some more development, but the potential is clearly already there for a powerful and challenging piece of theatre.

In the Shadow of the Mountain is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd June.

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Interview: Peter Imms, Section 2

“People need to see something about this topic, and to talk about it – as long as you chat about it in the bar afterwards, that’s great.”

Section 2 is a new play by London-based playwright Peter Imms, which addresses the sensitive subject of mental health. It’s been developed in collaboration with Paper Creatures, an emerging theatre company founded last year by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen, and will open in June as part of the Bunker Theatre’s Breaking Out season.

The play follows the story of Cam, who was sectioned 28 days ago, as he faces the review that will decide if he’s well enough to go home. “The play looks at the coping mechanisms that everybody has to find within themselves – not just Cam but everybody around him,” explains Peter. “It’s a really intimate and intense piece that clings on to the desperation that people feel when they’re thrown into a situation as drastic as this.

“It’s a subject that I didn’t really know about until half a year ago, and I think generally it’s something that people don’t know much about – there’s not many source materials for what sectioning is and the effects it has on people. I did a bit of research and found that it does happen to a lot of people, but there’s not really a conversation about it. So this play is a nice way to have that conversation, but also it’s just a good, gritty intense drama about four characters, all trapped in the same situation and trying to achieve the same thing from different angles.”

Peter was inspired to write the play by an unexpected personal experience: “Someone I knew was sectioned, and it shocked me because it’s one of those things that you think is never going to happen to you. So it came from visiting them and reading about other people’s stories – I guess I’m interested by things I don’t understand, so I did a lot of work into what it actually is and the technicalities of it. We also got in touch with Mind, the mental health charity, who have been amazing with information and feedback. They put us in touch with a lot of other people who’ve been sectioned, and then from that point the stories just began to form. So Section 2 has come from a place of interest, intrigue, lack of understanding and passion.”

The play began life as an idea and ten pages submitted in response to a call-out by Paper Creatures, who were looking for a new project following the success of their critically acclaimed debut production, Flood. “Paper Creatures are so good as a company because they’re not like anybody else – they’re all about collaboration and creativity,” says Peter. “When I went to them with the idea for Section 2, they liked what it had to offer in terms of potential, and from there we developed it together. We got the director Georgie Staight on board really early, and it’s been a constant soundboard with everybody involved. We’ve had R&Ds – we went away to Wittering together, which was romantic and lovely – just to explore it and play with it. It’s my favourite way of working; it’s been so nice to be in the room with people at the top of their creative game, to develop the play and test things out.”

That development process has seen the play go through some significant changes from its initial draft. “Between the first and second draft, the play basically completely changed,” Peter explains. “The first draft had this huge twist, but when we had a reading of it we all agreed that although it was great and very tense, it didn’t give us anything other than ‘it’s a twist’. So I went away and essentially re-wrote the whole play, still in keeping with exactly the same themes but I changed the structure of it a lot. It’s been hugely fun and explorative; they’re all so giving and so, so good, and for me it was a treat just to see them rip it all apart and put it back together again.”

As for Paper Creatures, Peter has no doubt they’re the perfect company to tell Cam’s story. “They’re advocates for new writing – I’ve never met anyone else who genuinely cares so much about new writers,” he says. “They go and see new work, they’re growing new artists all the time – and not just writing, they’re constantly looking to connect with new set designers, new lighting designers, whatever. They’re just so passionate about ‘new’, and they want to be pioneers of new work – so for me that’s fantastic because that’s what I am.

“But also the sensitivity that they bring to a subject like sectioning and mental health in general is absolutely priceless; they have a perfect balance of creative desire and the will to push everyone in the company to be the best, but also to honour the story that we’re trying to tell, and I think they marry the two really well.”

Section 2 will be performed as part of the Bunker’s Breaking Out season, which sees six companies perform in rep over four weeks. “The Breaking Out season is a great way for emerging companies to get on stage,” says Peter. “I hope it’s going to have a familial feel, especially for us as we’re always sharing the same night with the same company (This Noise), so I’d like to think we’re going to get to know them and it’ll be quite a community.

“Before I even knew it was a possibility I felt the Bunker would be perfect for Section 2; it’s got this gritty, intimate, almost – in a good way – dirty feel. The audience are encroaching on the show, and it’s like a fly on the wall situation. When I found out that we’d got it, I was delighted and now I can’t see it anywhere else. And the Bunker have been great in terms of help with marketing and outreach. For example we’re having some post-show talks involving the creative team, Mind, and people who’ve been affected by sectioning, so the theatre have offered us the time for that and helped us set it up.”

Originally from the Midlands, Peter moved to London when he was 18 to go to drama school. “I think a lot of playwrights either get into it from acting or from writing in some other form,” he says. “I was the acting route – I went to East 15 for a year, which was absolutely invaluable in terms of knowledge of the business and how stuff works. With that move to London I really discovered theatre, it was like a blast of everything that was new, so going to drama school for that reason alone was so integral.

“From that I realised I liked the production side a little bit more, so I started to work with screen, writing and directing short films, and that led into just writing those films, and that led into theatre, because I found I was more suited to the dialogue base of theatre than the visual base of screen. So it was just a slow transition until I found what I was right for and more comfortable with. Now it’s been three years that I’ve been solely writing plays and honing my craft – everything’s slow with writing, but I feel like I’m getting there.”

His top tip to other aspiring playwrights is to see as much theatre as possible: “See stuff you love, see stuff you hate, see stuff you’re indifferent about, see stuff you hate and find stuff in it that you like. I try and go to the theatre a lot; I just think it’s really important creatively. In terms of new writing, I love the Royal Court, and the Bush is a favourite for me at the minute, I saw Misty there a couple of weeks ago and it was incredible. In terms of smaller venues, I’ve seen some great things at Theatre 503, and I’m really close to the Orange Tree and haven’t seen anything I’ve not loved there, so that’s one that stands out.

“If I’ve got a bit of a block and something I’m working on isn’t really flowing, sometimes I’ll see something at the theatre and it’ll just change something in me – even if you just see something you love, it’ll inspire your writing. I think that’s the most important thing. And in London there’s so much here, especially in fringe theatre. That’s all I spend my money on, to be honest – that and beer! – but I wouldn’t change it.”

Book now for Section 2 at the Bunker Theatre, every Tuesday and Friday from 11th June-7th July.

Review: The Almighty Sometimes at The Royal Exchange

Guest review by Aleks Anders

The Royal Exchange over recent years has certainly changed its ethos in how they produce their main house productions; moving away from the comfortable, ‘bums-on-seats’ plays and musicals which were so much a part of this theatre company’s repertoire to a much more eclectic, boundary-pushing, rule-breaking, and therefore esoteric choice of productions. Even those that would traditionally be crowd-pullers, the Royal Exchange have chosen to go against the norm and challenge by cross-gender or colour-blind casting etc. So it was no surprise at all when they announced that the next play in their season was to be a Bruntwood Prize winner which tackles adolescent mental health.

The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver is a beautifully written and superbly observed piece of writing. It is honest, no punches are pulled, and yet there is great humour in there too, which serves to heighten and highlight the tensions and problems that mental health raises, especially when it concerns minors. Director Katy Rudd is right; it is one of those scripts which once you have read it you simply know you have to direct it!

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

In the world premiere production of this powerful and challenging four-hander, we see not only the inner struggles of a now 18 year old girl coming out of adolescence into adulthood, continually questioning her own mental state, caught between the perhaps unanswerable question of “what is me and what is my medication” syndrome, but we also see how her relationship and trust in both her mother, her boyfriend and her psychiatrist changes and develops over time. Her now rather fragile relationship with her mother begs questions like “Could she have done differently for me?”, “Why did she have to tell the doctors everything?”, “Was my mum or doctor always acting in my best interest?”; “What will happen if I don’t take my medication?”, “What will happen if I don’t take the doctor’s advice?”, “Did I even have a mental illness in the first place?” Indeed these same questions are being asked by her mother too, and the see-saw of their relationship is played with great passion and skill. She has been seeing the same psychiatrist since the age of 7, and they have built up a bond that could perhaps under other circumstances be called friendship; the compassion and understanding versus professionalism and correctness is played again with great understanding.

Norah Lopez Holden, no stranger to The Royal Exchange, is utterly superb as Anna, the teenager with hundreds of questions and no answers, her mood swings and her demeanour superbly measured. Another familiar face on the local circuit is Julie Hesmondhalgh playing Renee, Anna’s mother, whilst Mike Noble plays Oliver, Anna’s only real boyfriend / friend, and psychiatrist Vivienne is Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

To be honest, and without trying to sound sycophantic and gushing, the acting from all four is excellent; the chemistry between them is real, and their emotions and responses, electric.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

I do have something less positive to say though. Obviously this is only a personal reaction, but I did find that the lighting and sound detracted and misled, rather than adding and complementing. I felt very much as if I were watching a suspense thriller or similar where the background music in the film draws you in and conditions your emotional response. It was the same here, both the sound and lighting used throughout the play conditioned our emotions and told us exactly how we should be feeling and emoting at any particular point, rather than letting the wonderful words and acting affect us, each in our own way and in our own time.

The play doesn’t try to give answers or solutions to this ever-growing and contemporary issue; nor does it try to understand the problems, but with much humour and honesty simply lays the facts bare and leaves it up to the performers, director and audience to grapple with the issues in their own way. I am certain every audience member will have left the auditorium this evening with a different understanding and response to what they had just witnessed; however, what was abundantly clear was that we were all in agreement of the fact that it was exceptionally well presented by four consummate performers, and the subject was intelligently, sensitively and sensibly treated .

Certainly one of the best plays I have seen at The Royal Exchange for a long time, and a real gem of a play with a story that absolutely needs to be told.

The Almighty Sometimes is at The Royal Exchange until 24th February.