Content warning: discussion of themes of mental health
Electrolyte is a multi-award-winning piece of gig theatre that powerfully explores mental health for a contemporary audience. Written as spoken word poetry and underscored by original music, this explosive production is performed by six multi-instrumentalists who seamlessly integrate live music with expert storytelling.
Part of the steadily growing movement of gig theatre, Electrolyte fuses electronic music with spoken word poetry, and so combines the raw energy of live music with storytelling: in this case, tackling difficult subjects such as suicide and schizophrenia. Bouncing around in her Nike trainers and Adidas jacket getting pumped up for a big night out in Leeds with her best pals, Jessie is a compelling character, and through the hypnotic tangle of words that she delivers, the audience is intimately drawn into the inner workings of her mind. Her world is absolutely dizzying and through her we experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
Olivia Sweeney as Jessie is wonderful to watch on stage, and her delivery of James Meteyard’s script is so natural and deeply moving that at times I forgot I was watching a play. It gradually becomes clear that things are not as they seem as we discover that Jessie’s narrative voice is unreliable, leading the audience to question what is real and what is not. In an attempt to escape the monotony of her life in Leeds, she runs off to London with singer-songwriter Allie Touch when she receives a letter from her estranged mother that, seemingly by coincidence, also comes from London.
The entire cast gives energetic performances as both actors and musicians and they work seamlessly together to transport the audience into a variety of different spaces and atmospheres. The rest of the cast are also superb as Jessie’s friends, family and enemies. They aren’t just a backing band or supporting characters but real and sincere and alive in the space too, giving each other little winks and nods, playing with the space in between the action. Special mention must also be made of Maimuna Memon’s stunning musical score, which moves from acoustic folk to pounding drum and bass.
The emotional journey Jessie undertakes, with the audience alongside her, is unfortunately slightly undercut by the somewhat simplistic ending. Severe mental health issues are complex and need to be treated with care, which for the most part this show does very well. Sometimes, a person experiencing a serious mental health condition may not get better after accepting the support of family and friends, although that support is of course invaluable in giving individuals the best chance of managing their illness. The show acknowledges that Jessie’s struggles don’t just disappear overnight, but the neat bow tied on all the narrative threads in the concluding moments does suggest her recovery is undertaken rather easily and quickly, something which those of us who have experienced or witnessed psychological conditions are all too aware isn’t realistic.
Whilst it is undoubtedly important to combat the stigma that still surrounds mental health with a positive message and to educate people that recovery is possible (or where it isn’t then managing the symptoms can allow for happy, successful lives), it is also essential to acknowledge that even with the love of good friends, quality psychiatric care and appropriate medication, things may not be that simple. I couldn’t help thinking that a more nuanced and complex end to the story could have been more effective.
The final message is, however, important. As the play draws to a close Jessie implores us, the audience, to look after the ones we love. To invite someone round for a cup of tea when they’re feeling down, to tell someone they look good today and to simply be there when people need us.