Watching Liz Richardson in ‘Gutted’ puts me in mind of that old Roberta Flack classic: “Killing me softly with his song, telling my whole life with his words …” In a performance which is both subtle and brutally frank, Liz tells the story of her personal experience with ulcerative colitis – all of which feels horribly familiar to me, having myself been a victim of this disease a couple of decades ago.
The stage is set with three toilet bowls, from which, at various points, Liz extracts pro-biotic yoghurts: ‘good for the gut,’ she is told – as if they could halt the progression of this relentless disease. She presents her story largely through the voices of people she knows or meets – friends, relations, colleagues, nurses, strangers. With gentle humour and an extraordinary lightness of touch, she charts the life-disrupting hospital stays, the endless indignities, the pain, the shame, the fear and, ultimately, the surgical cure and its aftermath – the dreaded ileostomy bag and the subsequent reversal operations.
‘Gutted’ is an often graphic depiction of a debilitating medical condition that typically goes under the radar – it is not called the ‘hidden disease’ for nothing. There is a very telling moment when Liz adopts the disapproving voice of an observer disgusted by the fact that she has run into the disabled toilet when there is ‘clearly nothing wrong with her’. And it is precisely the invisibility of ulcerative colitis that makes this show so powerful. Liz refuses to be silenced by all the taboos that surround the subject, and in doing so, gives a voice to the approximately 146,000 people in the UK who suffer this illness.
The significance of this cannot be over-stated. I always thought that I was pretty ‘up front’ about this stuff, but I become aware while watching ‘Gutted’ that I feel deeply uncomfortable. It takes me a while to realise that this discomfort derives from a sense that Liz is putting my own, deeply personal, experience on display. It all feels too intimate – and makes me realise how strong a grip the taboo has, even on me, even 20 years later. ‘Killing me softly’ indeed.
All of which leaves me with open-mouthed admiration for Liz’s courage in devising this show, and delighted that she is taking it to hospitals as well as theatrical venues. By doing so, she is enabling sufferers to feel less isolated and to talk more openly – as well as to see the funny side of their experience. And, maybe most importantly, to be inspired by a woman who has come out the other side – a wife, a mother and a terrific writer/performer. There is life after ulcerative colitis!