Writer and Director: Lucy Harris
One of the most intriguing aspects of playwright Lucy Harris’s mental health-themed play Just Relax is whether the counsellor at its centre is hosting a group therapy session, or whether all her patients are aspects of the same one individual.
The principal patient is Sarah Parkins’s Katie, whose struggle to cope with her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent sudden death is affecting her emotional wellbeing. But Olivia Penhallow’s counsellor is also dealing with a trio of unnamed characters – Owain Gunn, Alice Uttley and Nathaniel Allen – for whom the umbrella term of ‘anxiety’ manifests in slightly different ways.
Whether this is a representation of the different ways in which anxiety can affect one individual, or an example of the spectrum of manifestations across the populace, is perhaps moot; anybody who has ever struggled with feelings of even the mildest anxiety will find something to recognise. Whether it’s a struggle to meet up with people or an obsessive compulsion to check and recheck all appliances are turned off before leaving the house, what might be a mild inconvenience for some can be a crippling obstacle for others.
The trio of anxiety sufferers interact with each other, sometimes helping worries subside, more often sending each other into spirals of manic behaviour. The interactions between Gunn, Uttley and Allen form the most interesting and assured elements of Harris’s piece, and every attempt to move the focus away from them lessens the play’s impact accordingly.
This is especially true for Penhallow’s counsellor, who is burdened with large amounts of technical jargon both about her approach to therapy and her assessment of the other characters’ ailments. With so much dialogue to deliver, Penhallow rushes through some of the meatier chunks, and struggles to give the sense that she is listening to her clients before responding to them.
Harris packs a lot into Just Relax’s 65-minute running time, and it does provide an insight into both the impact that poor mental health can have, and the sense that therapy can be a help. But the long term nature of treatment means that finding an appropriate ending to the piece is especially tricky. Harris’s choice of finale aims and misses, undoing some of the play’s evocative work in articulating life with anxiety.
Reviewed on 9 May 2022