In a production which spoke loudest in its low key moments, I was struck by something quite rare in student drama—a lack of pretension. The thought of watching a piece of new student writing—a musical, no less—that presents a chronologically disordered narrative exploring mental illness left me rather frightened that I would have to sit through an overly inventive piece, or one that mimicked an overwrought Hollywood incarnation of depression.
There is nothing more irksome than a depiction of suicidal thinking in the tone of Effy from Skins, all romantic melodrama and no reality. This piece, in complete opposition, was crafted by Annabel Mutale Reed and Leo Munby to have an admirable everyday humanity and frankness to it, as its four mentally ill characters find themselves stuck in the most mundane location: a London bus stop.
The characterisation in the first half is the musical’s fiercest aspect, with delightfully idiosyncratic and detailed performances by Kathy Peacock, Annabel Mutale Reed, Jack Trzcinski, and Eoghan McNelis. They managed to catch hold of some of the embarrassment, awkwardness, and the outright sorrow of mental illness which is not grand, but mundane, snivelling and raw. Reed gives a particularly excellent performance, with her brisk, ‘I’ve got my shit together’ verbal patterns perfectly toned.
The set and score maintain simplicity which allows storytelling to take centre stage. The Burton Taylor studio is used well: the conventionality of the seating imposing some sense of order, pleasantly resisting the amateur urge to go a bit madly experimental. The bus stop, only lightly touched by the hand of musical theatre, remains unobtrusive and familiar to any Londoner.
The map of bus routes in the background provides a subtle nod to the motif of connections, both human and neurological, without being too heavy handed. Even the inflammatory name ‘TRUMP’, scratched into the plastic post, fades easily into the distance, just another anxiety in a story thick with them.
Ultimately, it’s refreshing to see a production so immune to gimmicks. It’s almost as if it realises that it is conceptually strong enough in manifesting mental illness as a physical space, as something tangible and immobilising, when so often we hear it’s all in people’s heads, that it doesn’t have to work too hard. Tonal shifts are left to lighting, conveying both warmth and distress. The music, too, doesn’t try to be too avant-garde. Although occasionally abruptly silenced by a percussion instrument, for the most part it complements rather than overshadows the exposition of the plot.
If I had one critique of the piece, it would be that the latter half could occasionally feel weighed down by the emphasis on its message, which lessened the authentic emotional punch. However, conceptually, it’s very good. It offers up a spool of various threads that get tugged at throughout the piece in a fascinating and satisfying way.