Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Accomplished solo storytelling about mental health issues, with dance and song.
A plain white room in the basement of Summerhall has only a window (on a fairly driech Edinburgh day at that) and a tall floorlight. The audience are sat in a circle and it has the feeling of an impending AA meeting or self-help therapy group. “It’s a bit dismal” remarks one man and asks if there’s any more light. Everybody else seems to think it’s okay, so the group agrees to move forward. There will be revelations in the gloom – but this is a journey worth taking. “Hello, I’m Cheryl Martin” – a black female director and a writer, originally hailing from Washington DC. She’s warm, generous, comfortable with herself as she has to cope with a couple of latecomers. There’s a little recognition from a couple of women, who it turns out are from Boston. A little connection. She’s very relaxed, explaining that this is the very cheapest of spaces – there’s no tech so she also controls the sound from a boombox by her side. It feels like therapy – but for whom?
Part of the Open Minds Open Doors season, this is a brave piece about gradual self-awareness, misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatment, suicide attempts and struggling towards being able to cope with life, self and others. There are many pieces on the Fringe at the moment that claim the mental health banner, but this is an extraordinary, twisting tale that makes you shake your head in disbelief, grateful if you have had relative normality in your life, or will seem all too familiar.
The piece is a sharing: partly a performance, partly a series of questions, which I guess will change with each performance. Beginning with a trip to Moonbase Alpha (fans of Space 1999 will recognise the reference) Cheryl explains that mental illness has been a part of her life since she was very young. She was an athlete and for much of her youth the presumption was that because she was physically fit she was mentally fit too. “Mens sana, in corpore sano”. Clearly bright, she gets a scholarship to Cambridge. But there was rage, self-harm and the treatment didn’t work. In amidst the desperation are bright comic moments, such as being let out of hospital in the UK to meet the Queen and attend a Royal Garden Party, before being promptly returned for treatment. Abusive ex-partners and healthcare errors feature, but throughout the hour there’s a sense of optimism to balance the sadness.
Cheryl dances a bit, quite freely, to please herself. She also sings, very well. Unaccompanied, we are treated to “On My Own” from the movie “Fame”. In any other context it runs the risk of being sentimental – not here. Sung from the heart, the lyrics take on new weight – the sense of isolation is tangible.
“Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been,
Who I am,
Do I fit in.
Make believin’ is hard alone,
Out here on my own.”
The piece reminds us that Cheryl was born during segregation in Washington DC. Black-only buses, restaurants – hospitals. It is a highly personal story about emerging from mental illness, acknowledging identity, self and sexuality but it also addresses real issues right now. Some of it is uncomfortable, hard-hitting. It’s not an easy watch. There are murmurs of agreement at the end of the show as Cheryl checks in with people who may be emerging from the same difficulties. If I needed reminding, this piece showed that good theatre can draw people together – and catharsis is still a powerful medicine.