PhD student Carrie leads us through several case studies of female mental illness, spanning centuries and hitting quite close to home. We explore these postcards of women’s experiences and find surprising resonances with Carrie’s own story. This tender yet straight-talking play throws up a lot of questions but stops short of actually making a point as such, leaving us with an unsettling, probably intentional, sense of disquiet.
The Walls manages deftly to avoid labels and jargon surrounding mental health issues - we are rarely given bald statements of diagnosis. This helps us engage with each character as a person rather than as a cluster of symptoms, going a long way to brush aside taboos which grow from pigeon-holing. Carrie stumbles over her wording whilst conducting an interview - we are allowed to be unsure.
The cast offered some powerful performances, mostly devoid of sentimentality. Lauren Chandler’s Jane Yaeger captured a nineteenth-century primness that tellingly persisted even in her darkest moments. Lucy, a modern-day rock-philosopher/coffee shop worker played by Chloe Petts cut straight to the heart of things and Petts’ relaxed humour helped keep the tone positive. Unfortunately, Lucy is given a bizarrely poetic starscape monologue, which seems in massive conflict with her straight-talking attitude. Marshalling the host of women into a Word document at the side of the stage was Carrie, played by Sophia Chetin-Leuner. Her ‘bookish’ portrayal set a tone of understatement, giving a touching sense of being absolutely genuine. In a play focussing on female sufferers, the male characters felt like vacuously brutal place-holders, needed for the plot rather than being given a chance to explain their motives. All round the American accents were a bit shaky at times, leaving me wondering if it couldn’t have been transposed to a non-specific setting.
The cabaret bar setting is quite astute - this play is a stream of simple acts, held together by a compère of sorts in Carrie. The Walls certainly succeeds in starting a dialogue about female mental health, even if no firm statements are made. A word of warning - if for whatever reason, like myself, you are sensitive to issues of mental health, this over-long play will constitute something of an emotional battering. Dark, yes - but also beautiful.