Sad-Vents – White Bear Theatre, London,

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: Eleanor Hill

Director: Annie McKenzie

On a set that looks like the model for Tracey Emin’s My Bed, Eleanor Hill tells stories of obsession and depression, self-harm, trauma, over-indulgence, and being stalked by squirrels. For two and a half hours, she makes us privy to a world of psychological pain, she lays open her most intimate secrets, and she goes some way to making her audience understand a little of the pain of living with mental ill-health and heartbreak. It is a brave and honest show, it is also relentless and over-long.

In the run-up to Christmas 2020, in the first year of Covid Lockdown, Hill wrote and directed 25 stories acted out by 25 different women – a Sadvent calendar streamed on Instagram. The pieces were short and intense, and making the personal experiences of the writer a performance by an actor brought a useful distance to the pieces. Now she does the performing herself and on a tiny stage in front of a live audience, the experience is raw and vivid, but more like attending a therapy session than watching a show. She seems to need care and consolation more than she needs attention and applause. The performance for Instagram is reprised by addressing all her thoughts directly to a phone that she uses to film herself in live time. She uses a videographer, Rich Rusk, to make a collage of live and recorded video pieces on a large screen behind the bed, so the audience can watch the actor performing to a camera, and watch the recording, simultaneously. This creates a disturbing fracture in the visual experience, and makes other visual material available: family photos, nurturing walks in the park, cartoons, squirrels. It is powerfully reflective of the mental struggles she is discussing. It is also hard to watch.

The courage to reveal herself so totally, and so honestly, is worthy of enormous respect. The decision to let the revelations unreel for over two hours is problematic. Responding to that much self-revelation, remaining open and sympathetic, is hard work, and not all that much fun. There is a reason why therapists work sessions that last fifty minutes, and have their own therapy sessions; it preserves their own mental equilibrium. Eleanor Hill makes her audience respond to her desperation, but doesn’t give them much respite. The blackest of black humour doesn’t do enough to leaven the sadness, and it’s debatable whether the laughs – and there are plenty of laughs – are gusts of hilarity or of nerves.

This is a powerful and brave evening of theatre. It isn’t for the faint-hearted or the squeamish, and it would be more effective if it were shorter. But it isn’t like anything else, and it tells stories that need telling.

Runs until 25 June 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Intimate, exhausting, intense

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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