HOAX & Luminary Theatre played Vaults Festival in London with Hysterical – a psychosis circus full of laughs, but lacking in real bite. Review by Kate Lovell
Psychosis is an attractive subject for theatre makers. It lends itself to colourful characters and sublimely ridiculous scenes. June, the central character of Hoax and Luminary Theatre’s Hysterical regularly hears and sees a talking baby doll. Funny and bizarre, she has unforgettable visions of the Virgin Mary skittering across the stage on roller-skates like Bambi on ice.
June’s experience of psychosis is almost fun, a relevant idea as people do describe positive, enlivening experiences during psychotic episodes. But psychosis is no picnic, and the aftermath and impact on loved ones is often less than idyllic. Unlike other plays that touch on psychotic experiences, like the Wonderful World of Dissocia, this play skims the surface of a number of big issues relating to mental illness, gender and social expectations, but without giving them due depth.
The audience join June on her quest for a new job, sitting with her during an agonising interview with a rampantly arrogant boss from hell. There are a lot of laughs here, as the executive pulls no punches with her disarming inquisition, including an excellent satire of equal opportunities forms.
June is quizzed on her relationship status and desire, or not, to have children and a familiar fear is needled. Being reduced to the sum of tick boxes, supposedly never shown to those interviewing you, as an adequate way of ensuring diversity in the workplace is rightfully mocked.
This theme continues as a cacophony of cheerful voices chirrup interview questions interspersed with questions from the PHQ-9, a standard form GPs use to diagnose depression, which anyone who has been to the doc for such issues will know all too well. It is a relief and a release to laugh along with others who recognise the frustration of having to reduce such all consuming feelings to a ratings system.
June struggles to maintain her high-pressure job rebranding water for the working woman and visiting her brother in a psychiatric hospital. She begins to lose her grip on sanity in the process.
June’s brother is electing to be mute, plugging his mouth with a slice of orange, and we only hear his voice at the show’s end. Whilst it is understood that the character is mute, it would still have been possible to give him a voice without having him speak. But no attempt is made to show us who this character is or why he refuses to talk.
When he speaks at the show’s end, we hear only a clichéd story about a depressed clown which fails to reveal anything about who this young man is. His presence is merely symbolic, an all-too common feature in shows that depict mental illness.
June is also a one-dimensional character. Things happen to her and her reaction is entirely surface, gasps and apologies. And again, she is used largely as a cipher – we have no idea who she is. So we cannot empathise.
Both characters experiencing mental distress are dwarfed by the larger-than-life caricatures of the world they inhabit. It is uncomfortable to watch as things happen to characters whilst understanding so little of their own thoughts or feelings.
Watching the circus of psychosis feels crude and, given the research with clinical psychologists and the lived experience of mental distress of the creative team detailed on the company website, this does feel like a wasted opportunity to give voice to those who hear voices rather than using them as an excuse for quirkiness, which is overused and distracts more than it illuminates.