The Diagnosis – The Fizzy Sherbet Podcast.

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer: Athena Stevens

Director: Anna Girvan

‘It’s sugar-coated sugar’, declares Athena Stevens of her favourite childhood sweet, luxuriating in every grain of the word. The same cannot be said of her play, The Diagnosis, the first to be presented by the Fizzy Sherbet podcast.

There is plenty of sweetness and charm in the pre-show chat, where a panel of six women (you can’t see but they seem to be smiling a lot) briefly mention their pronouns (all she/her), describe their appearance and clothes and reveal their choice of sweet. It’s disarming. It feels like a well-behaved hen night, until the play begins.

Stevens (preferred sweet: Nerds) has a gift for radio. With the help of Keegan Curran’s subtle sound design, Stevesn and director Anna Girvan transport the audience memorably to The Barbican Concert Hall, an oxygen bar and Embankment Station. There are many characters, but only two voices, both female and both unnamed. Information is parcelled out judiciously. It takes a while to work out what the owner of the first voice is doing, apart from observing a couple of urban foxes, alone on Villiers St at 3.00am. She is played by Cara Ballingall, whose wry Scottish accent provides a comic counterpoint to the main story, which begins bluntly, ‘I’m here to report a rape.’

The second speaker, very effectively played by Lizzie Annis, has a superpower that might just be scientifically possible. Call it medical hyper-intuitiveness. She can foresee diagnoses of other people’s illnesses or trauma, sometimes years into the future. The drama arises from the fact that her power to change them is vanishingly small.

Power (or lack of it) is a central theme of this gripping play. Annis’s character has power. Her job is to control drone cameras flying through tunnels in the London Underground, checking for anything that might pose a risk. She oversees the safety of workmen, who never see her but sometimes make friendly gestures to the camera. She thinks of them fondly as ‘my guys’. With that power comes responsibility, and there is a fine line between alarmism and caution. When she reports an inconvenient problem, she comes up against corporate power.

The character also happens to be a wheelchair user, and dependent on her carer, Vida, even to get out of bed in the morning. She has power as an employer, but the employee has the physical power, and, of course, the power to walk away. Stevens writes from experience. The audience becomes aware of unconsidered daily humiliations, and greater ones like the fact of a non-disabled-bodied, beautiful, graceful ‘composition of person’ being reluctant to engage socially on all but the most superficial level. There is a painful scene at a concert when an audience member hisses at the speaker because her foot goes noisily into spasm at just the wrong moment. He’s going to get his come-uppance all right. There is plenty of dark humour, rich in schadenfreude. The speaker’s parting gift to Vida will give instant gratification and accelerate her gloomy diagnosis. She deserves it.

There are moments of inconsistency. The main speaker seems to be giving a kind of witness statement, but then veers off into what sounds more like an interview for Woman’s Hour. Some may find the whimsical fox commentary unnecessary, and an interruption in a gripping story, but it does add lightness – until the end. Then the woman in a wheelchair, unable to access the Help Telephone because it’s up two steps, becomes a striking metaphor for everyone who hasn’t been deemed significant enough to be listened to.

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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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