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The War Inside at The Albany | Review

Theatre does not get much more immersive than this. Before we’re in the auditorium itself, we’ve been asked politely to don one of the white slip-on surgical gowns waiting for us on hooks. What’s going on? It looks like we’re being asked to turn into medics of some sort – in which case, God help the patients.

The War Inside - Photo © EllieKurttz.
The War Inside – Photo © EllieKurttz.

It’s actually more serious than that, although relief of a sort does come. We’re not being pressed into a game of Doctors and Nurses. Nothing as straightforward as that. We are to become white cells. Tiny particles physically but big ones dramatically since this is a show which, as the title implies, is all about the literally vital function of these microscopic components.

We are at once on the inside of a visceral civil war. It’s theatre allright, but of the operating kind. Overhead is a massive heart, bright veins and all, floating like a scary party mobile. Then there’s other bits and bobs from our innards – boney shapes and shards of tissue. Somewhere above us there is a brain, or at least the sound of one, all boom and bluster.

Just a door’s width from the robing room and we’ve gone up ourselves. No longer outsiders looking in, but insiders occasionally able to look out through a virtual slit into the parallel dramas, family ones mostly, mother-and-daughter business – in that other, out-of-body world that we tend to occupy when we’ve not been press-ganged to founder in the gene pool.

There is serious matter here, proper life-and-death stuff, since the focus of our attention is a young woman called Marnie, locked bodily in a battle with an autoimmune disease. She, or at least her story, is based on that of the play’s author Camille Dawson, who endured the same illness.

Dark as your own insides, this wild and direly comic show pits The Cell against the tyrannic presences of the Major Organs. That Brain up in the Gods turns out to be a malfunctioning and self-absorbed (male) bully, rather like a useless driver at the wheel of a juggernaut. A conditional soul to boot, he says things like “I’ll send you love, but you got to send me oxygen in return.

It turns out The Heart doesn’t really have his, well, heart in it. “I don’t want to be here,” he tells us. “I’ve got better things to do.” He does find the time to caution the body against going to the toilet just now, “since we’re at a party.” Then there’s The Liver, a rather controlling entity who complains about the load of administration to be worked through.

With such lines as “we are taking back what it means to be white cells,” the work’s political analogies come sharply into focus. It starts to carry echoes of a Woody Allen archetype, the done-to little guy who’s so mad he’s not gonna take it anymore. There’s some glorious talk of an insurrection against the overmighty colon. But there’s also the heavier socialist tread of a Gunter Grass in his Plebeians Rehearse The Uprising mode. A matter of life and death, no less. Or, to quote the great Liverpool F.C. manager Bill Shankly, “Oh no, it’s much more important than that.

Before the close of play in this bold body-politic drama, we the audience – if that’s still what we are – are invited to take part in a collective life-saving and health-bringing manoeuvre. If the heroine Marnie is in danger, runs the logic, then so are the rest of us. All in it together. You only have to look around you at your pale-clad fellow onlookers, slightly spectral in the half-light, to sense the truth of that. The manoeuvre involves a vast sheet of canvas and what can best be described as a communal breathe-in. Hard to say what happens after that, but it looks promising.

Well aided by set designer Cristina Ottonello and sound designer Paul Freeman (sound), Camille Dawson, director as well as writer, has come up with a lived-in prescription for optimism.

5 Star Rating

Review by Alan Franks

Step inside the body and find yourself transported into a psychedelic wonderland of inflatable organs, whimsical floating cells, mesmerising soundscapes, larger-than-life puppets and interactive original film.
But don’t be fooled. Entrancing as this body may be, it is facing a major threat.

Inspired by Albany Associate Artist Camille Dawson‘s experiences of struggling with autoimmune disease, The War Inside tells the story of Marnie. Everything is happy, healthy and her body is functioning as normal. But before long, her body will be at war with itself. Undergoing the greatest struggle of her life, both Marnie and her organs will have to fight against the spiking disease and move forward with new perspectives on life, mortality, and identity.

This wild ride through the anatomy will uncover a rip-roaring story of bowel disease diagnosis with blood, tears, absurdity, hilarity, and humanity…all seeking to reveal what truly lies beneath.

the Albany and Camille Dawson present
The War Inside
Tuesday 26 – Saturday 30 September 2023

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  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.org/

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