Review: Pripyat

Alex Barasch is impressed by both the performers and playwright of this important piece of new writing

Veronica is an obituary editor. Her girlfriend, Percy, suffers from Cotard’s delusion, a form of psychosis that makes her believe she’s dead. It’s not a narrative one is likely to encounter just anywhere, but Verity Bell’s new play – a sharp, authentic exploration of mental illness whose only characters are queer women – is a vital one.

While the opening monologue was slightly heavy-handed, and the wilful destruction of the fourth wall doesn’t always work, the characters and their story (told in disjointed snapshots intercut with Percy’s medical history, from the amusing aftermath of a DIY piercing gone awry to weightier accounts of depressive episodes) are undeniably compelling. Given their situation, it’s understandable that the two talk a lot about legacies – both their own and humanity’s, as embodied by the eponymous Pripyat, a nuclear city evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster which the surrounding wilderness has gradually subsumed. In a telling moment, Veronica says that the animals there must be happy, while Percy points out that they’re almost certainly “cancerous as fuck.” And then, the question that looms over the play itself: does that matter in the absence of a diagnosis? How much does a disease, or more specifically our awareness of it, affect our experience and sense of self?

Like its characters, Pripyat is keenly aware of the works that have come before it (complete with meditations on Sarah Kane), the conversations it hopes to start, and the tropes that it comes perilously close to but ultimately, thankfully, subverts – rather than falling into the easy “hysterical woman” narrative, Bell treats Percy’s illness and Veronica’s helplessness in the face of it with respect and compassion. The back-and-forth between the two is witty and quietly devastating by turns; their relationship is understandably fraught but ultimately deeply loving.

The two-woman show asks a great deal of its leads, but they quickly prove themselves up to the task: their chemistry is apparent from the outset, and Anushka Chakravarti shines in the scenes depicting the early days of their relationship, lending Percy a kind of humour and charm that makes the toll of her illness all the more heart-wrenching in contrast. Imo Allen is exceptional as Veronica, with a range and emotional intensity rarely seen in student drama that becomes particularly apparent as the play reaches its tragic end.

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Most facets of the play work well. The set design makes the space feel intimate and lived-in; the lighting is more inventive than that of most BT shows, including instances where clinical records are superimposed over the pair as they are read out. The script itself is occasionally overwrought, and its self-awareness doesn’t quite rescue it from a few stilted speeches and moments that seem to be checking off a list of buzzwords, but ultimately these shortcomings can be forgiven. Granting representation to people and issues that go ignored all too often is clearly close to Bell’s heart, and the result of her efforts is well worth a watch.

****