Brighton Fringe 2013
The Nightingale hosted Caroline Horton’s very successful ‘You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy’ in 2011 and now she’s back with a cast of three in a play about anorexia complete with songs and music.
‘Mess’ is funny and engaging and more serious than it first appears. Horton and her cast play Josephine (Horton) who is anorexic, her good friend Boris who gives ‘the male perspective’ (Hannah Boyle) and Sistahl (Seirio Davies) who seems to be Josephine’s inner voice, expressing her fear of mess, addressing the audience on her behalf, and comically sabotaging her attempts to control the situation. Sistahl provides musical accompaniment, sound effects and more than a touch of mischief. The play follows Josephine through her eating problems at university and a spell in hospital in a self-professed unfinished journey of anorexia. The play is based on personal experience and research with experts in eating disorders.
The full house at The Nightingale on Sunday loved this play. From the start Horton engaged us with a self-reflexive story-telling style that brought a lightness of touch to a serious subject. Josephine wished to let us know precisely what the play would show, demonstrating a desire for control that ran through her dialogue, her actions and her relationship with the other two characters. Boris was anxious to please too, largely because of ‘his’ fondness for his friend Josephine. Where Josephine was almost ready to float away like a ghost, it was Boris who sported the leather flying helmet and raced around trying to make everything better – a seemingly impossible task. Boris was baffled by Josephine’s inability to eat and anyone in the audience who had supported someone with Josephine’s difficulties would have empathized strongly. I noticed quite a few nudges and nods of recognition between people as Boris made more and more futile attempts to help Josephine to eat.
Josephine’s goal was perfection, including her fantasy of the perfect version of this play, where the music would come from an orchestra banished to the pit and both other actors would have to audition for their parts. The set, designed by Fiametta Horvat represented Josephine’s anorexia (as Sistahl explained) with a tower that cut her off from the world, a set of medals that showed all her successes and a duvet that was her safe cocoon. If I have one criticism of the play, it is that I didn’t particularly like Sistahl’s method of explaining the symbolic significance of some aspects of the play. It was heavily ironic but not to my taste.
However, Horton’s presentation of a young woman with anorexia was excellent. Her physicality expressed pain, fragility and anxiety and the way she held a tiny cake or a slice of apple made it easy to see how she felt contaminated by food. The songs were memorable and a jolly counterpoint to Josephine’s increasing problems and ‘A Beautiful Effect on You’ helped us understand how eating disorders can give people a feeling of control over their anxieties. Even at her most ill and frustrating, Josephine was a character we could identify with and this helped us to grasp the devastating effect of this illness on everyday life and relationships.
By the time we reached the most desperate part of Josephine’s (and Boris’s) journey, the comedy gave way to a poignantly sad song that worked very well as Josephine climbed painfully back up to her cocoon at the top of the tower.
It’s hard to convey the quality of this play. It is exceptionally engaging and puts across a truthful and unflinching view of anorexia whilst having a lot of fun with the audience and sometimes being quite beautiful.
Written by Horton and devised with the cast it is skillfully directed by Alex Swift and produced by China Plate. This is another big hit for the talented Caroline Horton and a successful start to the Nightingale’s terrific festival programme.