Edinburgh Fringe 2017
“At a time when mental health is increasingly making the headlines, yet still so many are unable to speak about their experience for fear of stigma, this show tells a personal story that will get people talking. A show about one son’s moving exploration into his mum’s mental health.”
Mental is a brave and honest autobiographical piece directed by Tid and performed by Kane Power, discussing Kane’s mother Kim’s experience of bipolar disorder. Right off the bat, Kane tells us that the show will fail. How can he possibly do justice to his mother’s experience? What right does he even have to be telling her story? These are questions that any artist making work about someone else’s experience undoubtedly asks themselves on a regular basis, especially if they are representing the story of a person they love who may not be able to or may have chosen not to tell it for themselves. However, although Kane does not have bipolar himself, this is still his lived experience and his sharing of that does not fail.
Kane is a warm and engaging performer who makes the audience laugh throughout the show with his unassuming manner. He employs a mixture of media to tell his story – a collage of direct address, original music played live on stage, storytelling, movement, and recorded voicemail messages from his mother. The music, arranged by musical director Peter R. Reynolds, is a highlight – Kane has a beautiful voice, accompanying himself on a keyboard and using a loop pedal, allowing for some haunting harmonies. He doesn’t take himself too seriously though and the lyrics are often amusing.
Kane employs a graph which lights up in different colours to visually convey the highs and lows in mood experienced by a person with bipolar disorder. He explains that not everyone experiences the disorder in the same way. His mother doesn’t have the lows, but she certainly experiences the mania. Her lows tend to come as depression which is a result of the medication she has been prescribed. The show is highly informative about mental illness without being preachy or turning into a lecture. Kane’s descriptions of exactly what his mother feels are enlightening and, along with the descriptions of her outlandish and dramatic behaviour which can be a symptom of a manic episode, are delivered in a matter of fact way, never trying to elicit pity or sadness. In spite of or probably because of this, his description of her loneliness is genuinely heartbreaking.
As well as the story of a person with bipolar disorder, this is the tale of a carer, more specifically a carer who is also the child of the person they are caring for. This most complex of situations – caring for your parent while still a child yourself – was clearly very challenging for Kane as he grew up and started his own life. He admits that the way he dealt with it was through distance – having been taken to stay with grandparents as a child when his mother became ill, he learnt to cope by giving her space to get through the episode. He tells us he has a lot of guilt about this, wondering if he should have done or should continue to do more. His honesty is what makes his story so moving and engaging – he tells us what happened, warts and all – and his love for his mother is palpable.
There is so much potential to this piece but in some ways it feels like it is in its early stages of development. The different elements don’t always work together as well as they could and pacing is an issue at times. Certain sections, such as one near the end where he becomes his mother, don’t feel necessary at all. We have come to know and care for her through his stories about her and her voice in the phone messages. Having him become her is distancing in a way that might work in a very different piece, but not in this one.
For anyone with experience of either themselves or a loved one suffering from mental illness, which I’m sure is most of us, this is a show that’s really worth seeing. I look forward to its development.