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The Invisible Condition
Etcetera Theatre
9th August 2017

★★★☆☆

Eleanor Crosswell, Anna Demetriou, Helen Belbin and James Pearse

Photography provided by Last Word Theatre

Every year, one in four of us will suffer from mental illness. That's a shockingly high statistic and yet accessing medical help on the NHS is a battle, with waiting lists for treatment unacceptably long. People struggle and with their condition not being a physical one, sometimes it goes unnoticed until they reach crisis levels. Last Word Theatre aim to tell the stories of who they consider to be marginalised voices using verbatim theatre and their latest production, The Invisible Condition, is a play that tackles the state of mental health in this country by sharing real life testimonies with us.

Writer and director Stephen Bailey attempts to do a lot in only an hour and whilst the use of verbatim dialogue initially adds weight to the very important message he wants to get across, it soon becomes repetitive with the sheer number of voices saying the same one thing in many different ways making us lose focus. At the start, we feel deeply engaged, but soon we feel lectured at. No matter how worthy the cause or how much you already support it, this bombardment actually is less powerful that only sharing a few real life stories with us.

The opening in which we're introduced to a young woman with an eating disorder (Eleanor Crosswell) is striking, with a great use of movement and sound to frame beautifully what hints at the play's main narrative arc. Crosswell's portrayal has a haunting vulnerability to it. Disappointingly, this idea is soon abandoned in favour of cramming in as much testimony from different sources. Focusing more on this one woman, lost between two different areas of the NHS and in desperate need of help would make for a more coherent piece of theatre. A debate between two academics (Anna Demetrio and James Pearse) is interesting, but ultimately doesn't add to the woman's story. Testimony from a nurse (Pearse) on the front line is however far more hard-hitting. The story of a mother (Helen Belbin) trying to get help for her son whilst in need of help herself is sad, but unrelated to the young women we meet first and ultimately, adds in a layer of confusion as we try to spot a link that isn't there.

Not all verbatim dialogue needs to be directly linked in reality, however choosing to use only the tales that could potentially be related to each other would create a much stronger piece of drama. The Invisible Condition should be about that one woman and all the different people who could have or perhaps should have crossed paths with her. We're left with the unshakeable impression that in the course of researching this play, Bailey was overwhelmed by the awful truths he heard and was determined to give a voice to absolutely everyone, with his passion for his subject matter clouding his artistic judgement. For this is meant to be a piece of art rather than merely a lecture and we don't need to know absolutely all the facts and figures to be moved by and to sympathise with his cause.

A much reduced selection of testimonies from those working in the field of mental illness would gives this play more structure and allow the audience to emotionally connect more with it. Despite the faults with the writing, there are some flashes of brilliance from Bailey and some very strong acting. With Bailey asking too much of his cast, they all have to work incredibly hard to differentiate out their different characters and they do this well, mixing up their accents and demeanours. Outside help in the form of a script editor who is completely new to the project and hasn't interviewed any of the people whose words form the dialogue in this play would probably be a difficult step, but one that would drastically improve this play. The noble intention of this production deserves to be made a bit more, well, visible.

The Invisible Condition opened on 9th August and runs until 13th August 2017 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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