views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Strawberry Starburst
The Blue Elephant Theatre
13th May 2016


Maryam Grace as Shez

Photography © Lars Thornhill

I may be the wrong side of 30, but I still love a good Kinder egg, me. You peel off the foil, carefully smooth it out, try to break the shell into two perfect halves, then open up the inner plastic container and hope like mad you haven't been unfortunate enough to pick one with a rubbish puzzle inside. I can smell the chocolate and I can taste the chocolate just from thinking about it. It's amazing how certain foods can prompt such strong, instant, nostalgic connections to our childhood, but they really do. Associating emotions inextricably with food is a very human trait and this idea is at the core of Bram Davidovich's Strawberry Starburst, a powerful one-hander about one girl's complex relationship with food and how it insidiously takes over her life.

Initially the play feels like it's been written as a fairly light-hearted comedy - nothing too challenging or deep. Our protagonist Shez (Maryam Grace) is funny, likable and seems to be able to cope with absolutely everything life throws at her. Her father's own demons and her parent's subsequent divorce are horrific experiences to live through for a young girl, however Shez survives seemingly unscathed. We assume Shez is invincible, probably because she does herself, however by the time it becomes clear that's not actually true, Shez is gripped by a eating disorder. There's a subtle shift from easy comedy into gut-wrenching tragedy which is beautifully controlled by director Asia Osborne with a delicate and skillful touch. It's so gradual that like Shez's mum the realisation of what has happened hits us all of a sudden with the terrifying clarity of hindsight making us wonder how we didn't see it coming sooner.

Whilst some of the later plot developments feel inevitable and a bit textbook, I must confess, that didn't stop me from being utterly transfixed with Grace's performance throughout. I see hundreds of shows each year and believe me, it's been a long time since I was moved enough by a production to cry - the problem with reviewing so many is you do find it increasingly harder to become, well, not dead on the inside. My face was nonetheless decidedly wet towards the end of the show with Grace compelling me to shed a few tears in sympathy. It's not Shez's own struggle that cuts so deep, rather it's her realisation of the impact her eating disorder is having on others. To catch that glimpse of self-awareness and vulnerability is so desperately potent.

Alice Davies' set design cleverly incorporates brightly coloured wooden boxes with square cut out hatching, evoking thoughts of those all important differently coloured and flavoured sickly sticky starburst sweets. The translucent curtains provides something for blurred images to be projected onto, hinting at the vagueness and imprecise nature of memory, but Shez's frequent movements pulling them from side to side is more often distracting than purposeful. Rachel Sampley's lighting design falls victim to some technical problems, leaving parts of the show both literally and metaphorically a little dark. However, when combined with the playful and ethereal soundscapes by Orn Hilmarsson and Joe Donohoe, we do get the gist of what she was trying to create.

Making Shez such a strong and confident character and yet one affected by mental illness is an inspired move by Davidovich as it makes her descent feel far more shocking, whilst at the same time helping to destigmatise eating disorders. He leaves us with the notion that even the most outwardly exuberant and confident people could be struck down and despite the starkness of that message, also leaves us with hope. Strawberry Starburst is poignant, moving and hugely relevant. Word of warning though, the product placement may send you straight to the corner-shop on the way home to buy a packet of your favourite childhood sweets.

Strawberry Starburst opened on 11th May and runs until 28th May 2016 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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