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SURFACING by Tom Powell at the Vault Festival

Therapists often themselves need therapy, which sounds ridiculous on one level but in the end, it stands to reason that the emotional and psychological impact of hearing about difficult and disturbing personal experiences as part of their job would itself require treatment at some point: to put it another way, being a therapist places a person at higher risk of some of the very same issues that they deal with during the working day. “I know what to do,” Luc (Rosie Gray), a therapist, says in a voice note that is almost immediately thereafter abandoned. But knowledge of theoretical models doesn’t necessarily translate into something tangibly useful in the here and now.

SURFACING - Image by Bjorn Bauer.
SURFACING – Image by Bjorn Bauer.

Then there’s Owen (Daniel Rainford), who attends Luc’s cognitive behavioural therapy clinic, having waited seven months for an appointment (some NHS trusts report waiting times significantly longer than that). There’s a process to be followed, and Owen is understandably frustrated with the pages and pages of form-filling, apparently required for Luc to carry out ‘an assessment’ – of what, I still don’t know. It’s difficult not to side with Owen as what was proposed to him as a talking therapy doesn’t appear to involve much, if any, therapeutic talking on his part, so what exactly did he wait seven months for?

Luc’s inner thoughts are divulged to the audience, not in the form of soliloquies or diary entries, but expressed out loud as they happen. What transpires is a complex set of scenarios, some of which are more than a little bizarre, but nonetheless indicative of what the mind is capable of. Even Luc’s previous career as an animal tester had elements of peculiar behaviour – the spirits of mice she once drugged with ketamine (yes, really), apparently in the name of science, haunt her in her nightmares.

The production uses a combination of low-tech and high-tech methods of stagecraft, sometimes deploying old-fashioned physical props, sometimes relying on video backdrops, and other times both at once. There’s a refreshing and distinct lack of sentimentality as the play determines that Luc’s proverbial demons of the past have yet to be defeated, despite her religious-like belief in the power of the therapies she practices. An implicit acceptance eventually occurs that some problems may never be fully resolved, and it is, to use an increasingly common contemporary phrase, okay to not be okay.

Both Luc and Owen are still dealing with bereavements from some years ago, and leaving aside the ethical and moral dubiousness of some of Luc’s actions, the play appears to suggest that moving on from the death of a loved one is not necessarily a helpful or realistic ambition – some memories are worth cherishing in perpetuity. This is an unusual production, and one that explores neurodiversity (a term which, admittedly, I had to read up about after seeing the show) with significant creativity: what isn’t said is just as important as what is, which brings us back to Luc’s inner thoughts being made explicit to the audience.

The vast majority of the entire script – dialogue, inner thoughts, even song lyrics in the final scene – is captioned, and the stage as set at the start of the show is audio described. At the risk of asking a show that has metaphorically walked a mile to run a marathon, the audio description could have continued throughout the show – there were costume changes, for instance, that visually impaired people would have benefited from knowing about. Apart from that, this steadily-paced and fascinating play provides much food for thought.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

NHS therapist Luc is fine. Honest. She’s definitely not overwhelmed by meeting Owen, a new client, definitely not freaked out by what she’s started seeing, definitely doesn’t think her reality has been punctured and something else is leaking in. Luc goes for a swim and feels a hand dragging her down to the bottom of the lake…

When she surfaces, her reality is different. She’s haunted by tormented mice, shape-shifting people, and secrets she thought she’d buried.

Tue 14th Feb – Sun 19th Feb 2023

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