Eating disorders are a difficult subject to tackle on stage. Those affected by them experience them in vastly different ways, and such disparity in experience presents a challenge for one attempting to recreate these kinds of issues. In ‘Eat Your Heart Out,’ Tightrope Productions have succeeded in creating a piece of drama that approaches this conventionally stigmatised subject matter with sensitivity and nuance, whilst bringing to it moments of real light-heartedness.
The story follows 17-year-old Bel (Ella McCallum), introduced to the audience as the kind of down-to-earth teenage girl any of us could have known, or in fact been. As the play progresses, however, Bel develops anorexia, and we are confronted with the rippled effects this illness has – not only on the individual, but also on the people closest to them.
The work of the ensemble is compelling from the outset, and proves particularly effective when the actors embody the bustle of the world Bel inhabits. A stand out moment was the initial bus-to-school scene in which our central character is penned in by obnoxious, bragging schoolboys and Cardi B-rapping fellow travellers. This opening scene made visceral the mundane but anxiety-inducing realities of teenage life. Another effective ensemble scene was the visual representation of Bel and her friend, Nicole (Mia Georgis), as they lie in bed (see picture above), texting each other. It is in this crucial scene that Nicole introduces Bel to the world of fitness and health instagram accounts. That Bel’s interest is problematic is made clear from the beginning – yet at turning points like this, the audience are provided with comic relief as the ensemble mimic iMessage text alerts.
In this production, social media plays a pivotal part in the development of Bel’s anorexia – from the outset she and her friends are glued to their IPhones, strung into an all-consuming relationship with the Instagram world of hash-tags, ab workouts and clean eating. What Tightrope Productions have really put their finger on is the crucial role perception plays in the development of eating disorders. Bel defines herself from an image she pulls together out of various fragments, regardless of whether or not these are projections generated by the self.
In terms of individual performances, Ella McCallum made for a considered and likeable central character. I also thought Charlotte Dowding performed the role of Bel’s mum with grace, highlighting the potential for parental insecurity and anxiety as their child’s eating disorder takes hold.
The play’s writer, Alistair Curtis, and director, Philippa Lawford, must be particularly commended for this production. The piece was devised back in Oxford with around thirty people who have experience with eating disorders. Such a process has evidently given the end result it’s authenticity, and such authenticity should not be undervalued where this subject matter is concerned. I strongly urge others to see Eat Your Heart Out, and I for one am excited to see how it develops further.