Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Winner of the 2018 Les Enfants Terribles Award, Electrolyte is gig-theatre at it’s finest – a ridiculously talented group of actor/musicians telling a well-crafted story punctuated by great music.
Jessie has been having a hard time. When we meet her, she’s bubbly, excitable and charming, introducing her crew and raving about the musician Allie Touch. Jessie is also high. Often. We soon learn that Jessie’s not really as chipper as she first seems, and for good reason.
In a tour-de-force performance, Olivia Sweeney’s Jessie is the kind of person who experiences the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, eventually culminating in a heartbreaking breakdown. She’s recently lost someone very important to her and the small-town mentality of settling down young is suffocating her. When her best friends announce their engagement the claustrophobia of being in Leeds is too much – she jumps at Allie’s invitation to an edgy North London warehouse community when she receives a letter from her estranged mother which, coincidentally it seems, also comes from London.
Through spoken word poetry, original music and an array of larger than life characters, Electrolyte explores what happens when a young woman’s grief and guilt is simply too much for her to handle. Jumping between genres – starting as a coming of age tale then switching to a thriller with elements straight out of a young detective novel before finally becoming something much, much darker and more complex, Electrolyte is masterfully directed by Olivier-award winning Donnacadh O’Briain.
The entire cast gives energetic performances as both actors and musicians. I particularly enjoy the lovely, gentle turn by Megan Ashley as the supportive best friend Donna. Writer James Meteyard, responsibly for the sparky dialogue and growing suspense, also performs as Jim. Maimuna Memon, who wrote the music and lyrics, plays Allie Touch and Jessie’s mother, and possesses a haunting, devastatingly beautiful voice. The music – from acoustic folk to pounding drum and bass – is a highlight.
The emotional journey Jessie undertakes, with the audience right there alongside her, is unfortunately slightly undercut by the somewhat simplistic ending. Severe mental health issues are complex and need to be treated with care, which for the most part this show does very well. Sometimes, a person experiencing a serious mental health condition may not get better after accepting the support of family and friends, although that support is of course invaluable in giving individuals the best chance of managing their illness. The show acknowledges that Jessie’s struggles don’t just disappear overnight, but the neat bow tied on all the narrative threads in the concluding moments does suggest her recovery is undertaken rather easily and quickly, something which those of us who have experienced or witnessed psychological conditions are all too aware isn’t realistic. Whilst it is undoubtedly important to combat the stigma that still surrounds mental health with a positive message and to educate people that recovery is possible (or where it isn’t then managing the symptoms can allow for happy, successful lives) it is also essential to acknowledge that even with the love of good friends, quality psychiatric care and appropriate medication, things may not be that simple. I couldn’t help thinking that a more nuanced and complex end to the story could have been more effective.
Despite this, Electrolyte is an ambitious, beautiful, well-directed and gorgeously performed show with an important message – one which I highly recommend checking out.