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When Everyone Talks At Once – at The Playground Theatre

I don’t fully understand When Everyone Talks At Once, but then that’s what happens when everyone does indeed talk at once. I either understand nothing at all, or I’ve zeroed in on a voice and heard what that person said. Everything else is simply lost. There are at least three dozen cardboard boxes dotted around a room, plus a stool, a wooden chair and a rocking chair. Upstage centre is a grey metal filing cabinet, the contents of which are probably too much of a spoiler, suffice to say it gets used frequently enough.

When Everyone Talks At OnceThe context, at face value, is that there are participants in some kind of psychological study. Each is invited in by an unnamed character (Francesca Marago), whose role is unclear – she runs through a series of questions, before inviting each participant to “just wait here for further instructions”. The instructions, technically speaking, never come – an experiment begins, but there are no details on what the participants are meant to be participating in. Participant B (Rebecca Stromberg) decides to sit down and do nothing at all: he (all the participants identify as male) doesn’t know what to do, so what’s the use in doing anything? Participant C (Bethany O’Halloran) is okay with this, but Participant D (Dan Plumb) and Participant E (John Corbyn) want to know what’s really going on. But there’s nothing to be gained by asking Participant B, who has as little information to go on as everyone else.

But if they don’t know what’s going on, then how does the audience know what’s going on? The audience is itself left with a choice – to give up and wait for an explanation that may or may not come, or to continue trying to decode the narrative. Slowly but surely, a parallel story starts to emerge, as participants are triggered, one way or another. It isn’t difficult to put the pieces together, but the completed jigsaw tells a harrowing tale. There are repeated admonitions to a young man to repress any and all outward expressions of emotions, which in turn leaves him in an even worse mental state.

Some wry observations are made by the participants in the course of their conversations, including the relative uselessness of some of the topics taught in schools, whilst more practical skills like how to fix broken white goods, aren’t explored. At various points, a participant demands to be left alone, and the production asserts that it is inappropriate to try to help someone who doesn’t want it, however heart-breaking it feels to see them suffer. (There are, of course, different rules of engagement where someone is causing imminent danger to themselves and/or to others.) The production, however, is never preachy about courses of action, which prompted a number of questions in a post-show discussion about how members of the general public should approach situations where someone is acutely distressed.

The post-show discussion was officially dubbed a ‘question and answer session’, though some questions were difficult to answer, and a couple of contributions were more responses to the show than questions to the panel, which comprised cast, creatives and at the performance I attended, members of the team at Inner Allies, one of four charities the production is actively supporting, splitting all of its profits between ‘charity partners’. As well as retreats, workshops and various other activities, Inner Allies provides therapy support for people stuck on long NHS waiting lists for mental health support and who do not have the resources to access therapy in the private sector.

This isn’t the first show about young men’s mental health I’ve come across (one was even set on a railway line, and included stories from members of staff who clean up after a rail suicide), but I don’t know of any that have engaged with mental health practitioners as extensively as this one. The subject matter means the show is an intense and at times uncomfortable experience, justifying an interval despite a total running time of about seventy minutes. It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into this production, at all levels, and while it may be clichéd to say that it will have done well if it prevents just one suicide, based on the post-show discussion I observed, it appears to have achieved more than that already.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

One study, five subjects and a twenty-three-year-old man’s journey with depression.

A young man is placed into an induced medical coma after suffering for many years. Suppressing his emotions for as long as he can he is left with one final option. As the study unfolds, and memories begin to untangle, the subjects try to find a way to make sense of the reality and absurdity that blurs as the story is unveiled.

Director – Laurel Marks
Producer – Francesca Marago
Producer – Michael Searle
Writer – John Corbyn
Composer – Euan McCandless
Sound Operator – Matthew Ibbotson
Lighting Designer – Steve Cox
Assistant Director – Laura Melville
Photographer – Peter Tyrrell
Videographer – Ben Kearney

Francesca Marago Actor /Subject A
Rebecca Stomberg Subject B
Bethany O’Halloran Subject C
Dan Plumb Subject D
John Corbyn Subject E

Melon and Spud Productions presents:
When Everyone Talks at Once by John Corbyn with original music by Euan McCandless
8-11 FEB 2023

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