Royal Exchange, Manchester.
14 February 2018.
Since she was a child, eighteen-year-old Anna has been taking medication for a severe mental health condition. As a young adult she feels ready to stop taking her pills. “I’ve been on them for seven years, surely it’s worked by now“. Despite her psychiatrist’s objections and her mother’s concerns Anna is determined to find out who she is without the packets of pills.
Kendall Feaver’s new play (winner of a Bruntwood Prize Judges Award) revolves around the build up to that decision and the impacts it has. It keeps its focus tight, locked in on four people – Anna, her mother Renee, boyfriend Oliver and psychiatrist Vivienne.
Generous with insight into the complexity of both mental health conditions and the precariousness of medical responses to them, Feaver must have undertaken meticulous research, yet the play wears its learning lightly.
It’s especially good at confounding our expectations and making us ask questions. How certain are we that medicating children is the right thing to do in these circumstances? Is an “informed understanding” of the effects of anti-psychotic drugs enough to make them safe to prescribe? What are we to make of a loving mother who enlists her daughter’s boyfriend in secretly recording Anna’s moods? Or a caring psychiatrist who justifies the publishing of information about child patients on the basis that she has their parent’s consent to do so?
Feaver skilfully mines the intricacies of family and professional relationships for dramatic effect. She is also able create characters that are totally believable – complicated, flawed and very human. Anna is not portrayed as a victim or a saint. Like many teenagers she is rebellious and full of dreams for the future, but she can also be manipulative and self-centred. Families are similarly depicted without sentimentality. Oliver’s home situation is no less messy than Anna and Renee’s. Abandoned by his mother and caring for his father, he is embarrassed to let anyone see inside his home. Ironically, through her relationship with Oliver, Renee finds herself able to inhabit a satisfying maternal role unburdened by the worries of her real child’s mental illness, while Oliver enjoys the rare luxury of being cared for.
Rosanna Vize’s uncluttered design is almost clinical. A heptagonal arrangement of strip lights presses in overhead. Its configuration seems to trace the outline of a seven-day pill dispenser, an ever-present reminder of Anna’s prescribed regime. The lighting itself acts as a visual mood chart – flickering, sequencing, glowing and changing colour from cool blue to fiery orange. Giles Thomas’s agitated sound design gets under your skin. You’re aware of a niggling electric hum or unsettled by a furious buzzing, like insects trapped in a jar. At other times it’s a more insidious effect – building subtly and unnoticed until it short circuits and silence suddenly rings in your ears.
The performances are exceptional. While you’d expect actors of the calibre of Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Julie Hesmondhalgh to shine, what surprises is how Norah Lopez Holden not only holds her own but comes to dominate our attention. It’s a performance of intense power, particularly in the harrowing scenes where her character’s condition deteriorates.
Admirably, ‘The Almighty Sometimes‘ doesn’t seek to offer easy answers to the issues it engages with. Nor does it shy way from showing the distress that mental illness can cause. Tough to watch at times, it is also thoughtful, funny and very moving.
Images by Manuel Harlan.