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‘Heartbreaking and beautiful’ – Review: Brain Freeze

Eva Bailey reviews Brain Freeze at the BT Studio.

I was filled with excited anticipation when I braved Storm Eunice to visit the BT Studio last week. I was aware that Debora Krut’s original play Brain Freeze was a semi-autobiographical piece about sex and cancer but, from this description, I didn’t quite know what to expect. However, from the play’s beginning, this immensely talented cast of Oxford students captured my imagination, and I was swept up by the story they had to tell.

Brain Freeze follows a young woman – simply referred to as ‘Patient’ to preserve her anonymity – who is diagnosed with cancer, exploring her subsequent struggle to sexually reconnect with a body that has failed her. The narrative is framed by an oncologist lecturing a group of medical students (the audience), using Patient’s case to teach them about the importance of empathy and the difficulties in delivering heart breaking news day after day.

The opening of the show was ingenious, with Oncologist’s introductory lecture seamlessly weaving in the content warnings and setting the scene for Patient’s story. Michael Freeman was perfect for this role. He was an incredibly believable lecturer – to the point where I was often tempted to raise my hand when he asked for student participation – but he also explored a tender vulnerability to this medical professional, particularly in his conversation scenes with Patient. To switch so rapidly between narrating the story and acting within it can’t have been easy, but Freeman handled this complex character expertly.

Grace de Souza equally shone as Patient. Her range was impressive; I often found myself alternating between tears and laughter within the space of a few lines of dialogue whenever she was on stage. My favourite moment was Patient’s vulnerability before her routine scan, just after she has experienced a mental block when trying to have sex with her boyfriend again for the first time. Her fear was tangible, and de Souza’s portrayal of this intense anxiety was heart-breaking and beautiful in equal measures.

Peter Todd as Boyfriend and Emma Pollock as Best Friend also deserve the highest praise for their performances. Todd’s portrayal of Boyfriend captured the guilt and panic of watching someone you love suffer, and his tender moments with Patient were achingly stunning. The macaroon metaphor used throughout the play served as a symbol of hope and new beginnings, and Boyfriend presenting this to Patient at the end of the play – after Todd’s anguished, silent pacing just moments before – gave me a lump in my throat. As well as this tenderness, Boyfriend had a convincing (and amusing) relationship with Best Friend. Pollock’s performance, as I keep praising in this cast, had incredible range, and her scene with the sex toys was one of the funniest moments of the play. A mention must also be given here to the lighting inside her bag, a very clever way of drawing attention to the intimidating ‘something’ that lay within. Pollock’s frank portrayal was perfect to capture Best Friend’s fierce loyalty, but it worked equally well in her tender moments with Patient, such as agreeing to stay up all night to comfort her friend.

One of the play’s highlights was the scene featuring the three ‘Nosy Bitches’, busybodies who couldn’t help but ask probing and invasive questions when they spotted Patient in a pub. Macy Stasiak, Luke Nixon and Alec Watson were laugh-out-loud funny without becoming caricatures: like the rest of this fantastic play, this scene was perfectly pitched, and didn’t feel exaggerated or slapstick. Stasiak’s interaction with Best Friend was a stand-out moment, and Pollock’s range shone once more in this scene, deftly moving between drunk anger and concerned kindness within minutes.

The BT was the perfect venue for this production, and a mention must also be given to the technical aspects. The simple set was ideal, with actors often manipulating set pieces to create different spaces. The lighting was immaculate, particularly when Patient and Boyfriend were trying to have sex again, switching between warm, intimate tones to cool, stark ones to represent Patient pushing Boyfriend away. Additionally, the repeated MRI sound used throughout seemed to simulate Patient’s building panic, cutting across conversations to represent that Patient was unable to escape her anxiety. My only minor criticism was that the pauses while Patient and Boyfriend were texting one another felt a touch too long, but that was immediately forgotten due to the perfect comedic timing of this stellar cast.

When I opened my notes app once Brain Freeze had finished, I simply typed ‘Debora Krut is a very clever lady’. That couldn’t be more true: alongside a stunning cast and an evidently dedicated production team, Krut has created a show that wouldn’t be out of place in a professional setting like the Edinburgh Fringe. I have no doubt that this won’t be the last we see from Last Minute Productions, and I cannot wait to see what this company does next.

Image: Debora Krut

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