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Still Ill is ‘an intriguing and enlightening production’

Still ill Photo by David Monteith-Hodge
Still Ill – Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Neither a show about the consequences of not seeking medical advice and ignoring symptoms of a persistent health problem, nor the tale of someone on extended sick leave because of the stress brought on by working for a dreadful employer, Still Ill immediately directly engages the audience, who are assumed to be a group of medical students observing a procedure at a teaching hospital. The subplot, however, is just as engrossing as the main story – there is even fun to be had in deciding which is which. Sophie (Sophie Steer) is an actress playing a character in a movie with Functional Neurological Disorder, who herself then displays symptoms of FND.

Just when I thought a particular doctor (Hamish Macdougall) was considerably kinder and more courteous than a lot of NHS staff, a number of other medical personnel show up in quick succession, whose general attitude and demeanour is a lot closer to my own hospital experiences – that is, lacking tact and common courtesy. This show portrays the NHS very, very accurately indeed, and the frustrations its patients have with it. Some people may have been put off by the mind-numbingly repetitive nature of an early scene, where the same tests are performed again and again, but to me it demonstrated, without a scintilla of exaggeration, how lines of communication are utterly terrible in England’s hospitals, and how much resource is wasted just because its personnel prefer to re-interrogate patients who have already answered the same questions, rather than talk to one another.

This is not, ultimately, the most salient point of the show, however. Sophie does ‘go private’ at one stage but this does not prove to be the end of her troubles. Now, the use of a movie set, aside from being a rather animated demonstration of cinematic techniques under the leadership of an enthusiastic but slightly belligerent film director (Harriet Webb), allows the show to depict certain medical operations and procedures without coming close to nauseating the audience. Some detailed (and occasionally too lengthy) descriptions are given as the storyboards of scene after scene are outlined.

There’s some excellent and sophisticated use of video projections to reinforce certain scenes.

The distancing created by a depiction of the filming process, with its many ‘cuts’ and ‘retakes’, gives way soon enough to a long scene in Sophie’s home, where she and her brother Mark (also Hamish Macdougall) engage in an absorbing part-conversation, part-slanging match. Even if part of what they discuss has little if anything to do with FND, it’s a good piece of character development for both characters. The show benefits from this level of detail and it is clear to see that Sophie is not just a person with a disorder moping around feeling sorry for herself, but is doing her level best in trying circumstances.

The show could, ideally, have done with an interval. I found this play, running at just over 100 minutes, to be quite a hard slog towards the end, particularly given the play’s intensity. A musical number, which I understand to have been made famous by The Smiths, seemed out of place, even if the lyrics were well suited to the play: “Does the body rule the mind? / Or does the mind rule the body?” and the show would have worked just as well without it.

That said, this is, all things considered, an intriguing and enlightening production, informative without being sermonising. It’s worth booking an appointment to see.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

As common on neurology wards as MS, Functional Neurological Disorder looks and feels like a problem with the workings of the brain. Sufferers experience disabling symptoms that range from tremors to seizures and from blindness to paralysis, all with no physical cause.

With three actors and live music, Still Ill looks at the search for meaning that follows a difficult diagnosis – and how it feels to be told there’s nothing physically wrong with you when your brain is telling you you’re sick.

Following the success of Dog Show in autumn 2015, Still Ill is the new show from Kandinsky, exploring the unsettling world of the undiagnosable.
1 – 19 November 2016


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