Review: Hedgehog at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Remember being a teenager, when the most important thing in the world was what other people thought of you? Yep, me too. And so does Manda (Zöe Grain), the protagonist in Alexander Knott’s Hedgehog; she’s living it right now, and it’s not going so well. She’s just lost her job at the local vet – over a hedgehog, of all things – and her parents are in the slow and painful process of splitting up. Her “friends” seem barely to even tolerate let alone like her, and every time she meets a nice guy, she thinks he’s the one… until she finds out he definitely isn’t.

Photo credit: Charles Flint Photography

The problem is that it’s the 90s, she’s a teenager, and nobody’s told her that it’s okay to not be okay. So Manda puts on a smile and gets dressed up for a night out she knows she won’t enjoy, at a club she’s too young to legally be in, where she’ll down shot after shot in a futile attempt to smother her fear, loneliness and insecurity, and – even if just for a moment – to try and make sure that someone actually sees her.

Though Hedgehog is essentially a monologue and has the feel of a one-woman show, Manda is not in fact alone on stage. She’s joined throughout by “Them” (Lucy Annable and Emily Costello), who not only take on the role of all the people in Manda’s life, but also become the little whispering voices in her head that tell her she’s not good enough, not cool enough, not lovable enough. This brings Manda’s turmoil and desperate need for validation out of her head and gives it a physical manifestation that’s perfectly embodied by Lucy Annable and Emily Costello. The two of them are a constant, vibrant and versatile presence on stage, but without ever distracting from Zöe Grain’s brilliant central performance.

What makes the story of Hedgehog so sad, and at the same time such an absorbing 70 minutes of theatre, is that Manda seems great. She’s funny, caring and refreshingly down to earth, she really does look amazing in her pink prom dress, and she does an awesome Spice Girls dance routine. Grain engages fearlessly with the audience from the moment the play begins, and we like her from the off – which is why it’s so hard to watch her chasing the approval of her awful “best friend” Claire, her absent mum or her latest crush, just to make herself feel better.

Photo credit: Charles Flint Photography

Set to a soundtrack that incorporates 90s classics alongside original composition from Sam Heron and James Demaine, Hedgehog is a fast-paced and often unpredictable ride. Timelines get tangled, scenes switch in the blink of an eye, and the audience is not so much carried as dragged along with Manda as she reaches the point that will either break her or give her the fresh start she so desperately needs. The emotional climax of Georgia Richardson’s production is particularly powerful, a poignantly simple and unexpected moment of human connection that anyone who’s ever felt alone or helpless can’t fail to be moved by. Insightful, relatable and beautifully performed, this play is a must-see – and let’s hope, unlike the eponymous hedgehog, it has a long life ahead.

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.”

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.

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.

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”.

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… 😉