Throughout this year’s Vaults Festival in Waterloo, we have literally hundreds of creative pieces ready to be examined and enjoyed. These varying pieces, all put together by creative minds and active individuals, provide us with theatrical moments that we may not see elsewhere and expose us to an unlimited source of themes and opinions with passion and innovativeness. Hysterical, a piece written by Karis Halsall, provides a production that we expect from the Vaults Festival – but is that entirely a good thing?
In Halsall’s play, we are brought into the life of June who has, after many attempts, landed a job at an advertising firm but finds herself struggling with the pressure from the get-go when she is asked to re-brand water. With this and her personal family struggles (looking after her mentally ill brother and dealing with the fact she is unable to have children), we begin to see some cracks and June starts to question everything. What is she doing? Why is she doing it? Who am I and what is my place? Halsall proves to be a very intelligent writer who’s story structure is well thought-out and engaging. Her darkly comic approach and wording is a highlight as it is consistently strong throughout this interactive piece of absurdity – “Help! I’m trapped in a strange play and I don’t know how to act in it!”
Stephen Sobal’s direction is able to fit and keep up with this writing well though it is not as consistent as the writing. It’s dark and, for the most part, minimalistic. This is when it works best. Sometimes there are scenes where we are not sure where to focus. This can be down to scene placement or an overbearing sense of visual and audible information at times, such as the changing pictures projected onto the wall, set pieces or the well-endowed doll.
Sarah Fraser provides us with a June who isn’t always easy to sympathise with. Her vulnerability and anxiousness are relatable but there wasn’t much in the performance that made me want to root for her. Fionnuala Kennedy, who plays June’s employer, Mercedes, commands the stage from her entrance and provides a well-received energy change. She knows how to play off the humour of the role but I just wish I saw more to this character than just the slightly sassy, intimidating boss.
Alice Trow, who plays Catherine the assistant, is the most consistent character even though she probably does the least. Trow makes the most of every blank stare and short sentence given and it pays off. Sam Anderson gives a supportive performance but doesn’t give the chance to shine until the very end.
Even though, as said before, Halsall’s writing is comic, majority of the audience responded to the comedy of the actors breaking the fourth wall and by pulling certain “awkward situation” faces. This worked in some cases but, for example, Kristen Blakstad’s entrance as The Virgin Mary was accompanied by Madonna’s Like A Prayer and overly-long, but highly comical, struggle with Blakstad on roller-skates. However funny this was and how well Blakstad coped with it, there was a good part of it that seemed out-of-place and that type of comedy overstayed it’s welcome a bit too long. The same goes for the talking doll character, even though the reason for it’s presence is clear, it became a bit too uncomfortable to watch and anything it said from a certain point didn’t hit the audience strong enough because of this.
Halsall’s play has a lot to say that is worth listening to and with the right adjustments, has the opportunity to be a great play. That’s what The Vaults Festival is for – giving a platform for great theatre that has the opportunity to educate, inform, excite and expand. I believe that Hysterical has the chance to be one of those plays. There are going to be many similar plays that deal with modern struggles and mental illness and hopefully Hysterical can be one to remember this year.
Review by Tomm Ingram
Grounded in clinical and academic knowledge and lived experience of mental health problems, HYSTERICAL is a darkly comedic, bold new play exploring mental health and wellbeing.
“I’m trapped in a strange play and I don’t know how to act in it.”
June’s finally landed her dream job at an advertising agency, but when her first task is to re-brand water, she starts to worry she could lose her head….
Grappling with the sanctity of sanity, the play blends bold new writing with clowning, puppetry, mime. Drawing on the creative teams’ lived experiences, Hysterical examines how gender and modern day pressures take their toll on mental health and questions whether societal structures mean we’re destined to fail – is mental health a deeply political subject?
Hysterical aims to be a spark that ignites an open and honest discussion around mental health issues. The team hope that engaging with the piece will encourage others to speak about their own experiences and will do this by using humour to create a safe space, demonstrating vulnerability, courage and open heartedness onstage, as well as embedding the exchange into the form of the work.
Luminary Theatre have teamed up with HOAX to co-produce the show in creative collaboration with clinicians and academics specialising in Psychology at University College London.
by HOAX & Luminary Theatre
Cage – 7.15pm
From 3rd to 7th February 2016