The wonderful thing about Hearing Things is that, paradoxically, it has no definitive central anchor, and each audience member takes away different thoughts from it. This goes beyond the usual musings about whether the show was enjoyable or not – though I will settle that question quickly. With mental illness as an overarching theme, ‘enjoyable’ is not the operative word, and rightly so, as the show deals with the topic meaningfully. But nor is it heavy-going, laced as it is with dry humour (that of its characters, not of the subject matter).
It jumps about almost seamlessly from narrative to narrative, back and forth and around the houses. I detected six narratives altogether, with Nicholas (Jim Pope), a psychiatrist playing some part in four of them – there’s some deep character development of him as both his personal and professional lives are expanded upon. I suppose if I hadn’t found the show so genuine and engaging I might say it is somewhat unfocused, perhaps even frenetic, in need of a sedative or two. It’s not in chronological order, for instance, but I did appreciate the smoothness of the scene changes, helped by an in-the- round staging.
I’m not so sure the sections complaining about the supposed current state of the NHS were all that helpful. All healthcare systems are always going to have imperfections somewhere or other, and there’s a part of me that thinks the play could, if it wanted to really make a statement about the way the mentally ill are (mis)treated in psychiatric facilities, have been infinitely angrier and scathier. As it is, this production seems to have much sympathy with overworked staff.
In focusing in on just a few characters, it is difficult to generalise what happens to the psychiatric patients to the wider world. After all, each patient is different, and what works for Innocent (Daniel Ward) may not work at all for Janet (Jeanette Rourke). But this play drew me into their worlds, and I found it telling that arguably the most effective treatment for both Innocent and Janet seemed to be each other’s company whilst institutionalised, far more than any administered prescriptions or psychiatric interventions.
The script, on reflection, is manifestly robust. None of the three actors leave the performance space for the duration of the show, and there were, as far as I recall, no costume changes. There are props, for sure, but the performance space never feels cluttered, and the sound effects are suitably thinly distributed. It must, therefore be a combination of the acting and the writing that make the show a cohesive whole.
I found it extraordinary seeing Nicholas portrayed at various stages of his life. I found it all the more extraordinary seeing religious faith being included in a contemporary play of this nature – and more than one expression of it too, without it being lampooned, mocked or otherwise misrepresented: quite a rarity on stage these days. To put it another way, this play does God. It also provides a fascinating insight into modern life in a mental health institution. An intriguing and poignant production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
From award-winning playwright Philip Osment, Hearing Things is based on five years of collaboration with both staff and patients in mental health institutions, drawing together the stories, dilemmas and challenges faced by the ‘healthy’ and the ‘ill’ in communities whose voices are seldom heard.
Tue 31 Jan – Sat 4 Feb 7.30pm
For ages 14+
Playing ON theatre company presents a moving and provocative drama that opens a window to the closed world of psychiatry.