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Review of Bipolar Me at the Etcetera Theatre

Bipolar Me - Photo credit Hannah Sorrell.
Bipolar Me – Photo credit Hannah Sorrell.

One of the enriching things about attending the theatre is that there’s much to be learned about a topic or theme that a production focuses on. I’d heard the term ‘bipolar disorder’ before, and even its predecessor term, ‘manic depression’, and at some point I recall coming across some of the terminology used by a psychiatrist (Mat Betteridge) who is assessing Katie (Ceri Ashe), referred to him by her GP. There’s something called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which I stumbled on after learning about a colleague of a friend who was sectioned under the Mental Health Act during a shift at work.

Such a scenario wouldn’t have arisen for self-employed Katie, whose older brother Ronan (also Betteridge) and new boyfriend Gabe (Andrew Armitage) attempt to persuade her to leave the entertainment industry and make a full-time career out of her teaching job instead. Given the number of teachers, whether diagnosed with a mental disorder or not, who leave that profession within a decade of joining it (the precise reasons of which are another discussion for another time), I thought she was being rather ill-advised. No matter: she dismisses the idea.

A particularly amusing scene comes during a consultation with the psychiatrist, in which Katie is asked a series of yes/no questions but can’t help but give lengthy qualitative answers instead. I couldn’t help but chuckle at her dithering as to whether she has suffered an inability to make decisions. The play jumps backwards and forwards between 2017 and 2019 – the latest date in proceedings (always subtly indicated by a projection telling the audience the exact date) being six days before the performance on the night I attended. I have a strong suspicion the play, based as it is on real events, may well be revised again in any future incarnations and kept up to date.

This is Katie’s story, and should not and cannot be extrapolated to any sort of wider community of people who have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Hers is a strong and supportive family – when she switches her phone off for a while to spend some time alone uninterrupted, numerous answerphone messages are left in the intervening period before she is ready to face the world again. Her mum wants a call back, her dad wants her to call her mum because “you know what she’s like”, and friends are also concerned.

For this reason, there is ambiguity regarding medical interventions being any more (or less) helpful than the power of unconditional love. My own conclusion is that even the formal diagnosis is neither here nor there in this particular case, as Katie has coping strategies that are not unlike what many people do when under undue pressure, such as listening to music and finding ways to relax where possible, and there is no discernible change from such strategies post-diagnosis. The suggestion of taking medication that (if I understood correctly) may help to stabilise mood swings – something to do with neurotransmitters in the brain – is left with Katie but there is no explicit indication as to whether she decides to have it added to her prescription list.

Then there’s Mark Brown (also Armitage), Katie’s ex, and in flashback scenes it’s clear that their relationship was passionate and intense (let’s just say there’s a bed on stage for a reason). This is a fascinating exploration of a disorder that has a considerable impact on every aspect of the lives of those who have it. As I discovered myself just hours before seeing this play, keeping lines of communication open is key, which this production does well to emphasise without being preachy or pretentious. An important and fascinating show.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

This year, World Mental Health Day on the 10th October focuses on suicide prevention. The World Health Organisation identifies bipolar as one of the top causes of lost years of health and life in 15 to 44 year olds.

The play is a truthful, dark comedy based on the writer’s experience of living with bipolar. From the highs of a festival, to the depths of depression this punchy, enlightening and moving show takes you on a roller coaster of emotions and shines a light on a still much stigmatised subject.

Written and performed by: Ceri Ashe
Other Cast: Andrew Armitage, Matthew Betteridge

Etcetera Theatre
265 Camden High St
London, NW1 7BU
1 October 2019 – 6 October 2019
http://www.etceteratheatre.com/

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