views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother
Etcetera Theatre
18th August 2015


Simon Dean

Photography © Spit & Sawdust Theatre Company

When a slightly stockier lumberjack version of Russell Tovey proffers you a custard cream, you take it, of course you do. And because it's one of the best biscuits you can get, you heartily enjoy every crumb. It feels a little bit like being punched when you find out its true significance: She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother is a one-man autobiographical show written and performed by Simon Dean (no, not Tovey) about his mum and her battle with anorexia. In many ways, I do feel like Dean has forever taken the joy out of the custardy goodness for me, but that's a small price to pay for being able to listen to his important tale. Mental illness remains so stigmatised in this country, you can never get enough of art which attempts to demystify it for us and foster more understanding.

Dean draws on his memories of his childhood through to growing up and going off to university and the sense of helplessness and frustration he felt throughout that entire period caused by his mother's illness. He doesn't exactly look vulnerable, which makes his admissions all the more powerful. It doesn't really matter who you are, even the strongest people feel an indescribable pain when their mums are unwell. It's pure human instinct.

Anecdotes are related with a very comfortable ease and plenty of humour. There are regrets and sad moments, sure, however that doesn't mean there weren't some laughs to had along the way. Those brighter times are shared again with us now. Choosing to alternate the good with the bad makes his history more relatable - you may not have direct experience of eating disorders, but everyone can emphasise with an emotional roller coaster. Some of the most powerful lines are verbatim responses to questions posed by Dean and answered by his mother, with her explaining how it feels to suffer from her condition.

The subject is extremely personal and Dean has a well-paced patter, and as such, you quickly find yourself completely absorbed. However, his delivery does feel over-rehearsed in places and the structuring, especially in the second half, does let him down slightly. There's a hugely difficult line to tread between practising so much you no longer feel the need to weep on stage and between putting a very visible defence mechanism in place. It's the same issue that Zoe Charles faced in Memoirs of a Slutsky, but the difference is she did finally let us in, and I didn't feel here Dean ever did. It does feel a bit presumptuous, demanding more hurt from a stranger, yet such as the life of an actor.

The level of audience engagement is well-considered, and Dean works the room with charm, getting everyone to play along with him successfully. He's certainly a natural showman and one to look out for. She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother would benefit from a few tweaks, but it's nonetheless gripping as it is and a worthy watch.

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother opened on 18th August and runs until 20th August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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