PUSH Festival 2020.
When archaeologist Nuala unearths a skeleton, she finds herself increasingly drawn to the person it once was. That neat collection of bones buried face down in the ground so many years ago are all that is left of a small frail girl. As she pieces together details about who she was, Nuala can’t seem to shake off thoughts about that young woman. She becomes increasingly haunted by her story, obsessed even.
Sorcha McCaffrey’s Nuala isn’t short of acronyms, or a self-deprecating sense of humour. She’s been diagnosed with OCD, GAD and SAD, or as she says “I’m mad, sad and hibernate in winter, Like a depressed squirrel“. Based on McCaffrey’s own experience of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, her play is motivated by a desire to “show (the condition) on stage in a truthful way“.
What draws the young archaeologist to the centuries-old story she uncovers is a sense of solidarity, but also a deep-held fear. Both she and the young woman have experienced being labelled, made to feel ‘different’, and viewed as ‘other’. As she grapples with her thoughts, Nuala worries about being seen as not just “weird” but a “weirdo”.
McCaffrey is undoubtedly a wonderful storyteller, her beautifully-written script deftly juggles several interwoven storylines, along with an engaging collection of characters. So Nuala introduces us to potential love interest ‘Hot Henry’, Julia the therapist who is “so cringe” and Orla, her feisty younger sister, who has Down’s Syndrome. Humour and charm flow through it all, and there’s an abundance of quirky and arresting detail – a kiss that tastes “like granary bread and asparagus“, Orla “boasting to someone about her extra chromosome“, and in a hesitant moment of passion, a rainbow sticker is unpeeled from a wheelchair and stuck to someone’s forehead as a signal.
It could have ended up feeling a bit wordy, but it neatly sidesteps that potential pitfall, powered as it is by an energetic, and physically active performance. A quick bit of bachata dancing here, some ridiculously athletic sexual positions there, Nuala is always on the move, darting back and forward as she recounts the twists and turns of her tale. Critically she never lets us forget she isn’t the only person in the space. We’re here too, and as far as she’s concerned we’re going to be in this together.
McCaffrey spends a lot of time before the lights go down introducing herself to audience members and identifying who might be up for helping her out with the show. As a result, she is able to incorporate some really effective (and varied) audience participation at key points in the narrative. Skilfully handled, these sequences never interfere with the flow, adding to the overall impact, and ensuring Nuala’s experiences jump out even more forcefully,
With the help of two willing volunteers, McCaffrey’s Nuala is able to step outside of one of her own therapy sessions to observe, but also critique, what takes place. Our collective voices are used to recreate “the OCD orchestra inside (her) brain on a bad day” offering a fleeting glimpse of how that must feel. Even the identity of the mysterious young woman is pieced together with help from the audience, one imagines her hair colour, another gifts her a name, and then finally someone bravely stands up to movingly read young Aubrey’s story.*
In co-opting others so eagerly into her storytelling Nuala draws the audience ever closer, and in doing so, builds a real sense of connection. Perhaps too, that reliance on joint effort echoes one of the play’s underlying themes – that not everything has to be done alone, there can satisfaction in sharing a burden, and strength in asking for help.
Just as archaeologist Nuala’s painstaking efforts put flesh on bare-bones, the richness of Sorcha McCaffrey’s writing, alongside her carefully controlled performance, give her work real depth. Powerfully delivered, Ladybones is an insightful and uplifting portrait of someone who is so much more than just three big letters.
Performance seen on 29 January 2020.
Images by Alex Brenner.
*In Manchester, you can almost guarantee there will be other performers in the audience at a show, and on the night I saw Ladybones, the audience were treated to an impromptu ‘cameo performance’ from award-winning Alexandra Maxwell as ‘Aubrey’.