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Review: ‘Living With The Lights On’

Izzy Smith is gripped by a play that shines a light on a dark illness

Living With the Lights On offers intimate insight into a horribly isolating illness. The one-man play at the Young Vic is based on the life of its actor and writer, Mark Lockyer, and in particular his struggles with bipolar disorder. Lockyer’s manic depression has had a significant impact on his life since 1995, when he had his first major breakdown while playing Mercutio for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“I couldn’t get out of bed,” he recalls. “I was convinced I’d die if I went back on stage.” Despite its quick wit, the play feels personal and honest. Tea and biscuits are provided at the beginning, with Lockyer helping hand them out and chatting to the audience, pointing out where we can hang up our coats and even taking them over for us. There is no sign of him assuming a role as he begins his extended monologue—rather he is chatting to us, sharing his story.

The set comprises of the table for tea, and objects such as a ladder strewn about seemingly randomly, creating the impression that he is spontaneously telling a story using what he has to hand, rather than showcasing a rehearsed creation. He assumes the mannerisms of the people he describes in a slightly caricatured way, as we might when telling an anecdote to a friend. Movingly, the play ends with a conversation with his mother, where she tells him that people understanding his experiences depends on him.

Lockyer does indeed do an excellent job of making us understand, so far as we can, and his dedication to the task is impressive. The stamina required to deliver such a lengthy and energetic monologue must be immense, and his determination to share his experiences is palpable, as sweat drenches his shirt and brow. Personifying his illness as a brash, American and murderous version of the devil, and leaping between characters and moods, the energy of his performance is addictive yet unsettling, utterly manic.

The play is riddled with rapid and unpredictable emotional switches, guiding us through his experiences of bipolar disorder not only through narration of events, but through playing with our response in a frighteningly erratic way. At first these unexpected changes of pace and mood elicit laughs, seeming quirky and engineered for comic effect, but over time they become far more disconcerting. By the time Lockyer pauses midway through setting fire to his ex’s flat to jovially make a cup of tea, nobody is laughing.

We are shown a man who is completely out of control, drawn into his manic depressive nightmare. His hare-brained exploits such as spontaneous flights abroad, and playing a saxophone centre-stage in a production of Romeo and Juliet, are certainly entertaining, but despite the frequent laughter, we are left principally with a sense of spiralling, frenetic helplessness. Despite the fact that Lockyer addresses the audience directly, we find that we still cannot trust his narration, with vital events such as suicide attempts only revealed by their aftermath. This contributes to the overpowering sense of Mark being out of control. A particularly touching moment comes when Mark observes that prison it is the first places he has felt safe in years.

Lockyer offers ambivalent insight into mental healthcare. He draws frustrated laughs from the audience with his mocking impression of a doctor who can’t even get out the word “suicide”, and with a painfully accurate running gag where there are never enough beds in the psychiatric ward, wherever he ends up. Ultimately, however, he goes on to attribute his recovery and return to the stage to the hard work of mental health professionals, who simply would not let him decide that he’s “evil” rather than ill.

Living With the Lights On certainly doesn’t shy away from the darkest sides of bipolar, addressing suicide attempts and damage done to others. As Lockyer himself notes regarding the disorder: “It’s vicious and nasty—people’s lives are wrecked forever with this illness.” However, the play seems finally optimistic, discussing how Lockyer himself came to be able to manage his illness. It offers a perspective on mental illness that seeks to tackle stigma and promote discourse: what we ultimately remember most is Mark’s final wish to be understood.

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