Sessions – Soho Theatre, London

Reviewer: Eve Newstead

 Writer: Ifeyinwa Frederick

Director: Philip Morris

Ifeyinwa Frederick’s Sessions is the type of theatre that makes you hold your breath. Her one-man play interrogates masculinity and mental health with astounding sincerity.

Tunde (Joseph Black) is nearing his thirtieth birthday but he can find no cause for celebration. Years of managing to paddle above the surface of depression have finally worn him down, and he feels as though he is drowning. As a final attempt to live – ‘not just exist’, but live – he starts therapy. Writer Frederick explores the realities of seeking help and attempting to recover when it feels like everything in the world is trying to prevent your happiness.

To share so acutely one person’s suffering could be a drawn out and wearying act. But the play flies by because it grabs every measure of your attention. Frederick sets a rollercoaster pace by weaving through the intense polarities of Tunde’s emotions. Humour is employed in numerous insightful ways – it provides light to the darkness, as well as portrays Tunde’s personality outside of his depression which establishes a strong bond with the audience. And it is an extremely funny script, with Tunde’s off-kilter jokes to his therapist in perfect alliance with Black’s dynamic physical comedy. But the humour works further than that because Tunde’s joking becomes one note, which is part of the magic; its flatness is entirely the point because nothing about what is happening to Tunde is funny. It exemplifies his futile struggle to pretend as if everything is fine.

Frederick’s triumph lies in the genuineness of her depiction of mental health: the extreme highs and lows of recovery; the inability to communicate your thoughts and feelings with those around you; the physical symptoms that manifest and the particularities of managing vulnerability as a young black man, who has spent his life being told to be strong, to provide, and to lean on no one. What’s more, Frederick examines the limitations of the kinds of help that are available. For example, the devastating affects of your therapist’s holiday break, or being put on hold by the crisis helpline. The use of a female therapist is interesting; how different would Tunde’s response be to a male therapist?

The play’s handling of shame is astute. Tunde is humiliated by his tearfulness, by his inability to ‘man up’. The audience is positioned in stifling proximity to Tunde’s emotional state. This is heightened by the red lighting, the intimate set design, and, of course, Black’s phenomenal conviction, but Frederick simultaneously ensures that we never share in his shame. We will him away from it.

At first the normality of Tunde’s situation makes his suffering relatable and universal, but this effect is lessened with the backstory of his ex-girlfriend terminating her pregnancy. The plotline feels like an add-on for dramatic effect, but does not detract from the play’s power.

The centralising of male friendships is a final noteworthy point. Sessions encourages men to open up the conversation surrounding their emotional wellbeing. Discussing her play, Frederick explained “it’s really important to me that I see Black men in that audience, whether they’re regular theatre-goers or not.” There is a need for Sessions, as much as there is a want.

Runs until 4 December 2021

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