Writer: Jacob Marx Rice
Director: Alex Howarth
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Romcoms teach us that a chance encounter can be life changing, that two destined souls will find each other and eventually live happily ever after. The reality is somewhat different, particularly when the central couple are both suffering from different forms of mental health issue and meet in the psychiatrist’s waiting room. The European debut of Jacob Marx Rice’s play Chemistry at the Finborough Theatre is a haunting examination of the consequences of living with chronic conditions and the inevitability of relapse.
Steph, a depressive and Jamie with a manic condition meet and fall in love. He’s newly diagnosed and taking a break from an intense period of work while Steph has lived with her depression for more than a decade. Slowly the exuberant joy of their relationship starts to break down, and when Jamie decides to return to work Steph is plunged into a period of decline that her supportive boyfriend cannot rouse her from.
Chemistry uses dramatic duologue between the romantic leads interspersed with monologue delivered by both characters directly to the audience that retrospectively fills in the gaps between scenes. This two-handed narration gives the audience the simultaneously complementary and contrasting perspectives of each personality as well as each condition. For the most part it works well as a device and over time the audience is increasingly drawn into the characters’ world, investing in their complication interactions.
Yet, while the text has a tendency to cheesiness which makes the dialogue occasionally feel a little too heavy or earnestly American to convince as real speech, Director and Designer Alex Howarth’s production decisions more than make up for Chemistry’s flaws. Set in a contained rectangular space with a waist-high illuminated bar suspended from the ceiling, the characters are trapped in what could be a boxing ring until their association is concluded.
The use of microphones to deliver the internal monologues takes on a duel purpose, both separating the two time frames of the play in the text while also acting as a confessional, creating moments of intimacy with the audience in which Jamie and Steph open themselves up to the viewer. Carefully paced and lit with considerable care by Rachel Sampley, the overall effect is often enthralling as the breezy happiness of early love crackles and disintegrates until it entirely gives way to darker tones as Steph in particular is submerged beneath the lighting effects.
Caoimhe Farren’s Steph is initially the more easy-going of the two, accepting her permanent suicidal state and clearly explaining the periods of coping with those in which Steph cannot emerge – something we witness as the show unfolds. Farren conveys that slow slippage really well as the performance becomes increasingly internalised.
James Mear is equally affected as Jamie whose role in the first half of the play is the more complex as he tries to control his manic periods, struggling to adjust to being away from the job he loves and accept his condition. But it is the reintroduction of Jamie’s triggers and physical reaction as the pressure of caring for Steph becomes too much that turns this into such an interesting performance.
Mear develops a sweet relationship with Farren’s Steph which makes their experience together all the more emotive. This Finborough Theatre production works hard to show the real effects of mental health conditions and the unstoppable compulsions that they engender, and while the romcom element is slightly overplayed to the backdrop of various soppy songs, Chemistry well conveys the tragedy of two people who cannot save each other or themselves.
Runs Until 23 November 2019 | Image: Claire Bilyard