Measured – Hope Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Emma O’Brien

Director: Cat Robey

Emma O’Brien’s new play Measured, which premiers at the Hope Theatre, argues that eating disorders are not treated with the same seriousness as drug addiction in a climate where diets have become normalised. Drawing on her own experience of attending a day service for eating disorder treatment and of mental health issues, Measured has expanded from a Creative Writing MA assignment into a 90-minute three character play.

On the day Sophie is released from hospital, she undergoes an anxious pre-discharge interview; meanwhile her much younger sister Lucy says a bit too much to a school counsellor after an incident in the canteen and Sophie’s boyfriend Tom shares his apprehensions about Sophie’s return. Being back home proves difficult for all of them as Sophie struggles to understand how the others perceive her.

O’Brien’s play has some strong ideas that, with a little reshaping, have considerable scope for development. Staged as a mixture of dramatic two-handers between the three characters interspersed with occasional therapy sessions, Measured draws attention to the complex experience of both living with an eating disorder as well as trying to love someone who has one. ‘It’s never about the food’ O’Brien reminds us several times, exploring the consequences for Sophie’s self-esteem, her mental health and sometimes the more negative experiences of paranoia and passive aggressive behaviour that creep into her relationships.

But the play is a little distracted by a subplot involving a school friend’s self-harm, themes of domestic discord with Sophie’s stepdad that are never fully explored and the romantic relationship with boyfriend Tom that stalls dramatically. Late in the play, GCSE student Lucy briefly discusses her feelings about Sophie’s illness with the counsellor and suddenly the play unlocks which could be the basis for a future, much stronger and slicker version of Measured.

Using the therapy / counselling structure would give each character a chance to reflect on their experiences and frustrations, repurposing much of the existing dialogue as monologues with an unseen observer. This would reinforce the multi-character perspective O’Brien is using and give each individual a legitimate space in which to exist. The quite convincing relationship between the sisters and their interactions could sit between these individual and very personal perspectives without the need for quite so much unnecessary context.

Juliette Burton’s Sophie is not always easy to like and that feels deliberate, a chance for O’Brien to showcase the varied effects of having lived with an eating disorder for half her life that Sophie has endured. She never asks for pity or sympathy in Burton’s performance, giving her a sense of agency and independence in her own life which is good to see but equally the audience can’t fully understand or invest in her choices as the story unfolds.

April Hughes is the real star of the show playing Lucy, capturing the comic exasperation of the 15-year-old worrying about boys, friends and exams while making everything extra-dramatic. Hughes develops a pleasing chemistry with Burton that makes their scenes compelling, and they do feel like sisters. Aaron Phinehas Peters has less to work with as Tom, frustrated by Sophie’s irrational behaviour without ever offering an insight into his own struggles or even the basis for his connection to her.

A little too earnest in places and certainly overlong, Measured has a lot of the right elements but just needs to rearrange them slightly differently to repurpose a so-so domestic drama as three focused character studies.

Runs until 12 March 2022

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