Writer: Caroline Horton
Director: Alex Swift
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Mess is a unapologetically about anorexia nervosa. This might make one feel uneasy about watching, after all, it can have tragic consequences. That writer and actor Caroline Horton has used her own experiences in Mess might make it even more uncomfortable. But no. There are unnerving sequences, yes, but the whole is done with humour and sensitivity so that one leaves with a new understanding of what this condition actually means to the (mainly) teenage girls who suffer with it.
Mess is part of The REP’s Festival of Mad Ideas, Bedlam, a celebration of the creative arts and mental health. Indeed, before the performance we were serenaded in the foyer by the talented Choir With No Name, a local choir whose members are homeless or from the edges of society.
So why is Mess successful? It manages to tread the line between giving a serious message and being genuinely laugh out loud funny. It is performed by a company of three: Josephine (played by Horton herself); Josephine’s friend, Boris, played slightly confusingly by Emily Goddard in a running joke; and camp pianist Sistahl, played by Seiriol Davies, who also wrote the music and songs. Josephine is anorexic; no-one is quite sure how it began, but it seems to have come out of slightly wild eyed anxiety and desire for order. She finds that being in control of her eating, she is calmed. At the back of the stage, there’s a tall pink edifice representing anorexia. As far as Josephine is concerned, it is a safe place, a place that calls her to it when the going gets tough: an apparent paradox. Boris is her well-meaning friend who is trying hard to help but simply doesn’t know how. And much light relief is provided by Sistahl, who provides music and sound effects, or in slapstick comedy. The actors knowingly smash the fourth wall, talking to the audience directly from time to time. One such joke that does wear a bit thin is their insistence that this isn’t the real show: that the real show will include better props and sets and inviting us to imagine, for example, the fridge.
This is a genuine ensemble piece, with each of the cast of three being believable both in their set rôle and as ‘themselves’ when they address the audience in asides or appear to squabble between themselves, for example, when deciding whether the play, which had a “vague beginning” should have an end – should it suggest that anorexia can be cured?
Mess is very entertaining while also giving a serious message and allowing the rest of us a glimpse into what life as an anorexic might be like. It comes highly recommended.
Runs until 2nd November, touring until June 2014