This piece of new writing from Ben Maier is the latest addition to the succession of plays at this year’s Fringe which in some way seek to deal with issues of mental health. On this occasion, the framework of a television gameshow is established from the outset and sets up an illusion of structure which, along with our reading of the characters, grows less certain as the work progresses.
Maier’s writing does very nicely at connecting together moments from the whole piece in his final clarification of Leon’s backstory.
The immediate combination of strobing lights and a high-pitched sound effect serves to partially distort our senses and casts doubt on our judgements of the characters and situations which are soon put before us. And there is much to be unsure about. Our gameshow hosts, enthusiastically played by Jacob Ward and Emma Sylvester, inject a disturbingly frenzied energy which is impressively maintained for the duration. Although seemingly teetering on the brink of overplaying their faux- excitement, they do create a fitting contrast with Leon (Loz Keystone) and Jude (Rosemary Terry) whose humanity and vulnerability is crucial to the ultimate success of the piece.
Terry’s performance in particular is elegant in its understatement and she succeeds in creating sympathy far beyond the scope of her words. Paired with the calm confidence of Keystone, the duo’s honest performances serve to highlight the irritations of the increasing interjections of the presenters. A particularly enjoyable part of the show also acts as the tipping point after which the narrative strands of Leon and Jude begin to be resolved. The character of Frankie Valium, played here by the writer, who croons with a wonderfully indulgent voice, is the catalyst for the smooth(ish) running of the game show to more clearly destabilise and for the misunderstandings of mental health conditions to be more directly criticised.
The play seeks to respond and adapt to the particular context of each new performance, and in involving the audience with occasional parts of the gameshow it is guaranteed that the performers need to be skilled enough to improvise around whatever their chosen participants might bring. However, in this performance it is unclear exactly what impact this audience participation is designed to exert. Likewise, several audience members are given sweets during the performance – this is given no explanation and is in fact referenced in no way. Why are some audience members chosen over others? If it is to make a point about treating certain people differently, this needs to be clarified.
Though there is some lack of coherence in the piece at times, Maier’s writing does very nicely at connecting together moments from the whole piece in his final clarification of Leon’s backstory. In this grippingly told denouement, the characters are granted an additional layer of humanity which contrasts effectively with the madness of their situation and provides some much-needed meaning to much of what has come before.