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Mood Kill
The Lion and Unicorn Theatre
15th August 2018


Publicity image for Neon

Photography provided by Snippet Theatre Company

It doesn't always feel like there's much to be positive about in 2018 - in so many ways, the world around us seems to be socially regressing rather than advancing, and it's easy to feel that we now inhabit a more unforgiving and inward-looking place than we did before. One welcome exception to that apparent trend is that finally, we seem to be talking about mental health. Male mental health, in particular, is late to the party, but I like to think it will make up for lost time. Riding that tentative yet determined wave is Snippet Theatre Company's Mood Kill, a deeply personal exploration of the ordeals that men have faced when they felt they had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. All of it is word for word, based on interviews collected over the past two years. Suicide is a recurrent theme, as are deep-rooted feelings of worthlessness and despair.

But despair not - even in the darkest places there is humour to be found, and this production finds it and shares it, in a way that is tasteful and appropriate. The fact that all of it comes as self-deprecation from the protagonists adds depth to their characters - this is no moan. A key strength of Mood Kill is its portrayal of a wide range of men - Sam C Wilson, Louis Rembges, Patrick Bayele and Luke Thomas play nine men between them, from a range of social classes and ethnicities. In the oh-so-middle-class world of theatre, a conscious effort to represent reality and appeal to a wider audience is welcome. The decision to confront a major stigma head-on in the title also adds a certain boldness to the piece.

The programme puts heavy emphasis on Olivia Wilkes's recorded delivery technique, with actors listening to the original interviews through earphones and reproducing them verbatim. I had some doubts about it, and indeed they seemed founded at the beginning when one actor briefly (very briefly) talked over another, but my fears quickly ebbed away as the show went on. The aim is hyper-realism, and the driving belief is it can achieve it on a level that good old endless rehearsing can't. The speech, intonation and voice of every character feels very genuine. Perhaps most importantly though, it instils confidence - you know that nothing in the script has been hammed-up or embellished for the stage, and that kind of cast iron guarantee seems fitting for the subject.

That then gives movement director Christopher Yarnell clear parameters in which to stage the piece - all the artistry will come in the physicality - and there are several powerful moments, in particular the sense of overload as Tommy sits among his housemates, unable to escape them. However, the staging doesn't take adequate account of the Lion and Unicorn's shallow seating - any action low down is invisible to much of the house, and from the third row back a lot of neck-craning is needed to see anyone sitting on a chair upstage. Although it is admittedly difficult to predict these pitfalls when the company may not have had much rehearsal time on site, if in doubt, it is better to play safe.

Wilson takes a little while to warm up as Tommy - whilst his delivery is effective from the outset, his facial expressions feel somewhat distant and theatrical at first, and at that early stage I wondered whether the recorded delivery method only worked on a speech level. But boy does he warm up, and when in his stride he is intense and passionate, capturing a haunted, complex soul with impressive power. Against that intensity, Rembges is delightfully witty and airy as Sam - the tendency to shrug and make light of his issues only serves to make the audience reflect harder. Bayele is perhaps the most approachable of all with his account of life growing up in a religious family, and his character's very un-black decision to seek therapy, though I would caution that his first two roles feel a bit too similar in presentation. Thomas covers an impressively wide range of personalities with his three roles, each one clearly demarcated with a change of accent and body language - there are moments where his voice quivers and he pauses, conveying such a lot whilst saying so little. There is a true warming chemistry between Wilson and Victoria Waddington, who plays salt-of-the-earth friend Marie. Leah Gaffey supports well with her varied roles as a girlfriend and several incarnations of therapist.

If anything feels slightly in short supply throughout, it's the overall sense of pressure on the individuals - there are moments, there are definitely brilliant moments... then this fades again. The verbatim performance adds credibility to the piece, however more still needs to be made of the intensity of emotion through sound and movement. Although there is obviously a difficult line to tread here when realism and drama can come across as mutually exclusive, my instinct is it can be made that extra touch more dramatic without drifting into embellishment.

Niggles aside, Mood Kill is an extremely worthy and relevant performance that entertains and appeals to the emotions whilst educating - the packed house certainly thought so. I would recommend it to anyone with the remotest interest in the human mind and its place in a difficult world.

Mood Kill opened on 13th August and runs until 18th August 2018 at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Kentish Town (Northern)

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