At the 2014 Edinburgh fringe, the trailblazing Every Brilliant Thing – written by Duncan Macmillan and performed by Jonny Donahoe – talked to us about depression in a refreshingly warm, open and honest way. A year later, Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ’Til You Make It tackled the taboo subject of male depression and was one of a number of fringe shows exploring mental distress. This year there are so many that a new award has been introduced for shows about mental illness. Talking about it, particularly depression, is the new coming out. As Viki Browne says at the end of her show Help!: “Don’t keep it a secret.”
For a long time Browne had been wearing a painted smile – but the cracks were beginning to show. In January 2012, on Wimbledon Common, she shattered. Marking this moment the stage explodes in a firework of tin foil strips. Her show Help! is part of the process of putting herself back together. She can’t do it alone. Browne has to ask the audience to help pick up the pieces and stick her together. We do so with copious amounts of sticky tape. The joins show like scars, but it’s a start.
If Browne’s endearingly comic piece cleverly uses metaphor to point up the importance of asking for help, then The Letter Room’s show No Miracles Here stretches metaphor to breaking point in a piece of gig theatre that was inspired by the dance marathons that occurred during the Great Depression. This likable company describe it as “a well-researched fabricated fable,” about Ray who joins the dance marathon, a place where as long as you can keep moving and your knees don’t touch the ground you have a chance of winning.
“This is about endurance, not about technique,” one of the dancers tells Ray. The songs break the narrative rather than pushing it along and there is never quite a sense that the cast are dancing as if their lives depended on it. However, it neatly makes the point that with depression everyone’s experience of the dance is different and some will leave before the music stops.
Music is also integral to Silent Uproar’s A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad) which is undoubtedly the most uplifting show about depression since Every Brilliant Thing. Sally is certain she is going to change the world but on her 16th birthday she senses a shadow – she flunks out of her A-levels and becomes a charity fundraiser or “chugger” (“the most depressing job in the world”). Eventually she gets help, sees a doctor and joins a support group. She gets better, and then the depression comes back again. This is a very slickly put together show, written by Jon Brittain and with music by Frisky and Mannish’s Matthew Floyd. It is deceptive: like Sally, it looks all shiny on the surface but underneath there’s a lot going on, some of it very dark.
At her most desperate Sally pushes away everyone who loves her and says hateful, hurtful things – not unlike Alice in Milly Thomas’s Dust. We first see her looking at her own body in the morgue after successfully killing herself. Superbly performed by Thomas herself, this is a brave, uncompromising monologue. This is depression in all its ugliness, as Alice – caught somewhere between life and death – watches parents, brother and friends respond to her suicide in the days after her death, and reflects back on how she ended up on the slab. It’s not a pretty show, some may think it’s an insensitive one, but it’s blisteringly honest about the way depression deforms and distorts a person and their way of looking at the world.
In Good Grief, Jack Rooke uses his personal experience of grief to make a show in which comedy, spoken word and theatre collide. His follow-up performance Jack Rooke: Happy Hour, deploys similar techniques to craft a highly entertaining, yet delicate and perceptive piece inspired by the suicide of two friends. With the stage set up as if we are in a bar, Rooke proves a genial host as he describes the “lost boys”, questions what we mean by success for a generation who play and work hard but lack opportunity, and comments on representations of suicide in the media. It’s done with the lightest of touches as it crosses the comedy, spoken word and theatre boundaries and manages to reference Harry Potter and makes some waspish jokes about students.
These shows are just the tip of the iceberg of offerings on the fringe. Most are made by those under 30, many draw on personal experience and all remind us that mental health issues are too often treated as a dirty little secret. These artists are shouting it loud, and without shame: many young people are in crisis. Will we listen to their cries for help?
In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.