Interview: Michelle Payne, Sad About The Cows

Michelle Payne is a playwright, director and performer whose work has been widely produced since 2015, when her debut play Orchid picked up two awards on its first outing. She’s also a founder of Caspa Arts, an acting school for young performers who can’t afford to go to drama school, and from tomorrow brings one-woman show Sad About The Cows to Tristan Bates Theatre for a week-long run.

The dark comedy explores the themes of female self-image through the story of Rachel, a young woman obsessed with consuming. “In the age of social media we are constantly bombarded with information and images, and it’s how her impressionable mind processes this,” explains Michelle. “I wanted to create a seemingly high-functioning character that happens to suffer with her mental health – it does not define who she is.”

Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre

Though it’s not a directly autobiographical piece, Michelle did draw on her own experience to write Sad About The Cows. “I’ve seen a lot of theatre and TV about characters who face problems with their mental health, but hadn’t necessarily seen anything that resonated with my experiences,” she says. “I used my personal experience as a starting point for creating the play, but made sure that I adapted the plot so that Rachel is definitely a fictional character. This thought helps me to safeguard myself in the performance, to remember that I’m just telling an important story.”

Sad About The Cows transfers to Tristan Bates with a female creative team, after first being performed as part of the John Thaw Initiative Working Class Season with Actor Awareness earlier this year. “We stepped in for a gap in programming for the first full length showing as part of the John Thaw Initiative, which challenged me to finish writing the play,” says Michelle. “From this, the Tristan Bates offered us the week run. I was lucky enough to find a diverse female creative team who have shared slightly different views about body image and its relationship to mental health. Each creative in the team had something different to offer towards the piece, whether that be culturally different or from their life experiences so far! It’s been a great process with five different voices in the room.”

According to national charity BEAT, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – 75% of them female. Michelle hopes the play will break down barriers and start a conversation about the subject: “The main thing I’d like people to know about eating disorders is that it’s not necessarily that people who suffer want to be skinny, it’s often a way of keeping control. And also that people can function despite the illness. I’d like our audiences to be able to have an open discussion about mental health disorders. So often the stigma stops people from discussing this at all and people worry about what others might think if they admit they suffer.”

Catch Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre from 21st-25th May.

Review: 100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed

Since 2017, Chickenshed have used their annual spring show as an opportunity to tackle important issues affecting young people. Following the success of Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, last year’s Offie-winning take on climate change, this time around the inclusive theatre company is exploring mental health in new show, 100% Chance of Rain.

Conceived and directed by Lou Stein, the ambitious production doesn’t follow a “traditional” narrative thread, but instead is made up of several individual pieces, each depicting a different aspect of mental health through music, movement and storytelling. Linking these together are monologues from the show’s single recurring character, Liz Abulafia (Belinda McGuirk) – an arts therapist who reflects on her own mental health journey through creative expression, and encourages us to do the same.

100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Taking this instruction to heart, the production practically bursts with creative talent. The use of colour, light and movement make for a visually stunning combination, the songs are beautifully performed by Chickenshed’s Vocal Voices (their a cappella rendition of Back to Black is a particular highlight), and there’s effective use of projections and video to supplement the action on stage. Though some of the pieces are a little more abstract in their presentation, they remain (with one possible exception) accessible to the audience, never losing sight of their message amidst the spectacle.

One of the things that makes the performance a success is that the diverse and predominantly young cast clearly have a deep understanding of the issues they’re portraying. Each of the seven aspects of mental health explored – which include self-harm, panic attacks, the pressures of being a single parent, and the growing obsession with online gaming – has been workshopped extensively, to ensure that the voice of its performers comes through loud and clear in every case. And as always, it’s a joy to see the Chickenshed spirit of inclusivity and community represented so completely on stage. Just as mental health can affect anyone, so this production has a place for everyone in its cast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 100% Chance of Rain is not always an easy watch; it’s both startling and saddening to realise how many different ways young people are suffering, and the decision to add an interval (the performance was originally advertised as 90 minutes straight through) offers a welcome respite. Similarly, the show’s upbeat ending comes at just the right time to save us from descending into a pit of gloom, with the acknowledgment that though things may seem dark right now, at some point the clouds will part and it will get better.

100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Mental health has become an increasingly topical issue in recent years, but it’s still one that individuals can find difficult to discuss on their own behalf, because of embarrassment, denial or simply not realising that what they’re going through “counts” as a mental health problem. Some of the issues covered in 100% Chance of Rain are well-documented – self-harm, for instance, is a serious problem that we know affects many young people. Others are less so; one piece explores the impact of leaving the family home for the first time, and the feelings of isolation and abandonment that it can cause on both sides. Taken as a whole, the show seeks to open up the conversation, and to encourage anyone who’s suffering – in any way – that it’s okay to reach out for help.

100% Chance of Rain is at Chickenshed until 30th March.

Review: Rattled at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Inspired by a mother’s true account, Rachel Harper’s one-woman play Rattled is a short but punchy production tackling the sensitive topics of childhood trauma and postnatal mental health. The play is set on a lonely railway platform somewhere in southern England, where Em has just discovered a baby in a carrier. Unable to track down the child’s mother, she sits down to wait – and then, to fill the awkward silence, she begins to talk. Soon we (and baby) have heard all about her nice but dull husband Ian, their unsatisfying marriage, and her fear that she may have settled too easily and missed out on a great romance. We also learn about her childhood trauma and the abuse and neglect she suffered, and it doesn’t take long to guess the answer to Em’s repeated and increasingly desperate question: whose baby is this?

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it deals with some difficult issues, Rattled isn’t as hard going as it sounds; in fact it’s a surprisingly funny play, whose aim is never to wallow in the misery of mental illness but rather to advocate talking as the first step to recovery. Em is a very likeable, intelligent and witty character, and Rachel Harper is exceptional – both as a writer and an actor – in her utterly convincing portrayal of this vulnerable young woman who’s been through so much and now finds herself at breaking point. Her story unfolds very plausibly as a stream of consciousness, meandering from one memory to another and punctuated by musings on everything from Wuthering Heights to the parenting habits of orangutans. It all sounds random, unplanned – but in reality, not one word is wasted in this tightly constructed piece of writing.

This efficiency is reflected also in director Jemma Gross’ fast-moving production. Simple, effective design from Florence Hazard (set), Sherry Coenen (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound) quickly and convincingly establishes the station setting, from the “see it, say it, sorted” announcements to the flickering lights of a passing train. Similarly, from the moment the play begins Rachel Harper’s performance leaves us in no doubt of Em’s current state of mind; every movement and gesture is loaded with meaning. She’s moving constantly, full of restless, nervous energy and unable to sit still. Each time she tells a joke, it’s accompanied by an awkward, high-pitched laugh. As the play goes on she becomes increasingly dishevelled, and even before she says a word, her emotional distress is palpable. We don’t know exactly what her intentions are at the station – though various possibilities come to mind, each more disturbing than the last – but the way she stiffens each time an announcement comes over the tannoy makes it clear that the train approaching the station is of some significance. As it gets closer, the tension both on and off stage builds as we wait to find out how Em’s story will end.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Rattled is a gripping and poignant production that doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of mental illness, particularly affecting new mothers. But it also puts its money where its mouth is; Missmanaged Theatre have teamed up with childcare agency Bea & Co to support parents by providing a free creche at Sunday matinees, and discounts on at-home childcare for audiences attending evening shows. This is clearly a company who not only believe in making high quality theatre, but who also want to make it count – let’s hope others follow in their footsteps.

Rattled is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd March.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Getting Over Everest at Tristan Bates Theatre

Getting over a break-up is never easy. But when you’ve spent ten years – a third of your life – building a future with the man who’s just unceremoniously dumped you, recovery can feel like an impossible task. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the ex in Natasha Santos’ new play is called Rob Everest, and that main character Libby is struggling to get over him. She’s not eating; she’s been spotted crying into a stolen pair of Rob’s pants at work (when she’s not listening to Sinead O’Connor on repeat, that is); and she’s started recording her farts – just because she can.

Needless to say, Getting Over Everest is a comedy, in which Libby (Natasha Santos) confesses all the crazy things she’s doing to try and get over her ex. When we first meet her, she’s leaving him yet another voicemail – in this case, a heartfelt rendition of I Will Always Love You. Later, encouraged by her friend Steph (Grace Dunne), she goes clubbing and ends up having an ill-advised sexual encounter with a floppy-haired random (George Vafakis) whose name she never bothers to find out.

It’s all very funny, and the cast of three play the outrageous material for every well-deserved laugh, with Grace Dunne and George Vafakis providing strong support as a variety of comic characters alongside Natasha Santos’ wry, self-deprecating Libby. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a newly single woman going a bit mad for a while, and it’s in its quieter moments that the play really touches a nerve. We never meet Rob (although we hear his voicemail message a lot), and there’s a reason for that – though he might have sparked it, Libby’s panic is never about him but about what he represents. She’s hurt and heartbroken by his rejection, but more than that she’s terrified of what the future holds for an almost-30-year-old whose entire life has been defined for a decade by her relationship status.

And you don’t need to have recently come out of a long-term relationship to identify with that feeling – anyone who’s ever gone through a bereavement, or lost a job, or simply woken up one day and realised their life isn’t going the way they’d hoped will be able to recognise a little of themselves in what Libby’s going through. (Though it’s likely – I hope – that most of us haven’t yet resorted to recording our farts.) In reality, this play isn’t so much about a breakup as it is about the importance of being able to talk about our fears and emotions; it’s only when Libby finally opens up and shares how she’s feeling with a kindly stranger that she’s finally set on the road to recovery. As funny as the rest of the play is, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Libby’s emotional journey instead of just the first steps, even at the expense of some of the earlier comedy.

Laugh-out-loud funny, at times unashamedly filthy and at others unexpectedly poignant, Getting Over Everest is an entertaining and relatable hour of theatre that touches on some very topical issues – and above all reminds us (repeatedly) that “it’s okay to not be okay”.

Getting Over Everest is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 11th August.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Milly Thomas, Dust

Milly Thomas is a London-based actor and writer, whose solo show Dust is about to transfer to the West End, following critically acclaimed runs at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Soho Theatre. The solo show, directed by Sara Joyce, tackles the difficult topic of mental health from a unique viewpoint – that of a young woman who’s just committed suicide.

“This is Alice’s story,” explains Milly. “Alice has depression and decides to take her own life. However, what she isn’t counting on is remaining there, stuck. And in this stuck place she can see the effects of her decision on her family and friends and, ultimately, on her.

“It’s something I feel very passionately about, having had depression and anxiety myself for a while. I think it’s so easy to lose sight of what it means to be high functioning and the real impact of depression on our lives. I hope that it will get people not just to open up about their issues with mental health but also to do more and realise that suicide isn’t the answer. Mental health is spectrum. Suicide is binary: once you’ve died, you are no longer in that conversation and there is no room for hope. This play takes that concept and turns it on its head.”

Dust by Milly Thomas
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Dust has been greeted with widespread acclaim since its debut at last year’s Fringe, for which Milly won an Edinburgh Stage Award. “It’s been incredible,” she says. “I think the biggest surprise is it actually happening at all! And the fact that people have responded to it quite the way they have. I’m very overwhelmed by it and thrilled that it’s helping dent the stigma a bit. With the West End transfer, I think I’m most looking forward to the new audiences. Each time the show has been on the audience has evolved, and I’m so excited to meet the people I’ll be playing with.”

The 75-minute solo show sees Milly playing not only the central character of Alice, but all the people in her life as well. It’s a challenging task, but one she relishes: “Ooh, I love it. I love doing it. I miss it when I’m not doing it! It’s like being on the treadmill in a good way. What I love is that you can’t end game it. When it starts, Alice is in a place of complete denial and almost amusement. Almost giggly. You can’t think about where it’s going or what’s going to happen. It’s only halfway through that you suddenly realise how hard it is and by the end you’re totally out of breath.”

Milly began her career as an actor, and started writing when she graduated from drama school in 2014. Her first full-length play, A First World Problem, opened at Theatre503 in July of that year, followed in 2015 by Piggies and in 2016 by Clickbait, which played to sold-out audiences and an extended run. Last year, she took two shows to Edinburgh – Brutal Cessation and Dust. Her top tip to other aspiring writers is to write as much as possible: “As much and as often as you can. Throw nothing away. Absolutely nothing. Might be gold in five years. Be patient. This is a long game and your age and experience are only going to make your work richer.

“Talk to people. Talk to strangers. Writing is a relationship. Try to make it a loving and fair one where you are kind to each other. Talk to other writers. Talk to directors. Actors, producers, designers, stage managers – talk to people. Find out how it works outside your sphere. Keep interested and open and never be precious. There are different hills to die on and choose them carefully. You’ve only got limited hills! You can’t die on all of them!”

Book now for Dust at Trafalgar Studios 2 from 4th September to 13th October.