Edinburgh Fringe 2022
Written from lived experience by a talented new writer Breathless is a funny and honest exploration of hoarding, from the highs of acquisition, through addiction and onto suffocating shame.
Things haven’t turned out as Sophie (Madi MacMahon) planned. Her daydream desire was to be a successful young writer living her best life in cosmopolitan London, dressed to kill in cutting edge fashion. Her reality is a slow descent into mental ill health fuelled by anxiety, lack of confidence and repression of her true self. Sophie feels a failure having returned to small town life a long way from the bright city lights and heading towards 40 with seemingly little to show for it. Told in flashbacks with witty one liners what the audience experiences is a slow pulling back of the veil to reveal what has trapped Sophie for most of her adult life and why she is so frightened of taking the next step in a healthy adult relationship.
Written from her own life experience Laura Horton’s text is beautifully crafted so we walk beside Sophie learning about hoarding not as a prurient observer but as a sympathetic viewer, and judging by the knowing laughter in the auditorium, with recognition of behaviours which threaten to derail many of us. I attended with two people who are both seeking support as they have been diagnosed with Hoarding Disorder (now recognised as a mental health condition in its own right) and their support worker. So it was with some anxiety I turned to them at the end and asked ‘Well?’. Both felt it was an accurate reflection of their lives, far removed from the casual treatment of hoarders on TV who are often shown as living in piles of vermin infested rubbish, with ‘a cure’ being as simple as chucking house contents in a skip and a jolly good clean. The causes of hoarding are complex and there isn’t one thing in Sophie’s life that triggers the anxiety. With a light touch Horton cleverly shows the deep negative impacts on her protagonist’s job, relationships and social life. The piles of designer clothes Sophie accumulates become towering mountains, impossible to scale so that everyday life can continue. There are no quick fixes but there is light at the end of the tunnel for Sophie.
MacMahon is a versatile solo performer and engaging storyteller, voicing many characters from Sophie’s girlfriend Jo, her Dad, shady ex-boyfriend and snotty magazine colleagues with swift physical pen portraits for them all.
Like all great theatre you cannot see the workings of this production, only the highly polished whole, but clearly a talented team of creative women have joined together to consider all aspects of this near-perfect piece. It does matter and makes a difference to the quality of the audience experience, that at least two of the team have experience of living with challenging conditions. The soundscape thoughtfully underscores the text (composer Ellie Showering, sound designer Holly Harbottle ) and the simple set design whisks you from sales room, to street, to childhood bedroom, to cluttered London flat share. The Director to be credited with pulling all these parts together is Steph Kempson.
Breathless is a complex confident text which explores mental ill health with sensitivity as well as diversity in different forms including mental ill health, class and sexuality. It will be great to see what Horton will produce next, maybe a full-length drama with a bigger budget at her disposal.