Anna is 11 years old. She has lost her dad, three years earlier, her behaviour has become erratic and she is displaying signs of deep mental anguish. Finally, she throws herself out of her bedroom window in an apparent suicide attempt. She survives, but clearly her distraught mother (Renee) has to do something, and she turns to psychiatrist (Vivienne) who sets Anna off on a path of medication. Thereafter, the overriding priority of Renee and Vivienne is to maintain Anna’s stability and keep her safe. But, seven years on, as she turns eighteen, Anna starts to question the value of this ‘safety’.
Kendall Feaver’s Bruntwood prize-winning play takes us inside the experience of mental illness, portraying with brutal clarity the impact on both the sufferer and her carer. It lures us into Anna’s world and invites us to share her rage and frustration at being medicated out of her identity, her independence and her creativity. And then, when we are almost completely on-side, we are drawn imperceptibly into Renee’s perspective and can’t help but empathise with her helpless despair as we witness the tortured disintegration that follows Anna’s decision to stop taking the pills. One minute we see Renee as the controlling mother, concerned only to manage Anna’s illness – seemingly for everybody else’s convenience. In the next, we see a mother desperate to spare her daughter further suffering and willing to make any personal sacrifice to this end.
Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of mum/Renee is (as ever) brilliant: quietly determined, infinitely patient, relentlessly controlling and always utterly, utterly convincing. There is a shattering moment when she has to stand by and watch as Anna implodes and explodes in equal measure – and the pain that is etched into her face is as hard to witness as Anna’s torment.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster is also excellent as the ever-professional, ambitious psychiatrist, and Mike Noble plays the kind but over-burdened boyfriend, Oliver, with sensitivity and a wonderfully authentic teenage awkwardness. But it is Norah Lopez Holden’s performance as Anna that electrifies. When we first meet her, we see an attractive, vivacious young woman with energy, humour, intelligence, intensity and passion, as well as a poignant vulnerability (“Do you like me?” she asks repeatedly). As she comes off her medication, her entire demeanour changes; the intensity becomes manic-ness, the passion turns into a lethal combination of anger and disinhibited cruelty, and every movement of face and body appears distorted. It is an extraordinary feat of empathy and imagination.
Although the play itself see-saws between the perspectives of mother and daughter, it is Anna’s inner world that is reflected in the stage design (by Rosanna Vize). A marbled blue heptagonal stage gives the sense of a swirling turbulent sea, while a matching fluorescent light-fitting above it flickers disturbingly and emits an uncomfortable white noise. There are moments when it all feels a bit design-heavy and I wonder if it doesn’t distract attention from the primal, raw emotion emanating so powerfully from the characters themselves. However, the lighting structure that hangs ominously above them – an imposing, unyielding structure, dwarfing the individuals on the stage below – acts as a powerful metaphor for Anna’s illness, and, in a mesmerizing dramatic climax, it descends (literally and metaphorically) to imprison her.
Apart from a lengthy expository scene in the second act, The Almighty Sometimes is written with a light touch and the play feels sharp and pacey. However, these are weighty issues and Feaver doesn’t shy away from exposing either the complexity or the tragedy of mental illness. And she doesn’t let us off the hook by offering easy answers. It feels like a brave and honest exploration of an intractable subject, and the result is harrowing, funny and heart-breaking.
Photographs by Manuel Harlan