Four Fine Plays About Mental Illness

By Johnny Fox Last edited 16 months ago
Four Fine Plays About Mental Illness
The Deep Blue Sea. Photo: Dean Rogers.

It’s been a crazy theatre week for mental illness.

Joe Penhall’s intense Blue/Orange psychotherapy drama at the Young Vic feels like a completely different time and space from its 2000 origins at the National Theatre. Even so, it pretty much guarantees envelope-openers at awards ceremonies will have to learn to pronounce ‘Daniel Kaluuya’ in the same way that, 16 years back, they had to master ‘Chiwetel Ejiofor’. Read our review here.

Meanwhile, at Wyndham’s, a specialism seems to be developing: following The Father by Florian Zeller, which focused on the tangible experiences of Alzheimer’s, you’ve now got just a week to catch People Places and Things the most nominated and awarded straight play of the year. And you should, for the coruscating central performance of Irish actress Denise Gough as a fierce young woman battling too many addictions and demons to list, but at least equally for the extraordinary work of Casualty veteran Barbara Marten playing her doctor, her therapist and her mother.

One of the hardest things to put on stage is a group therapy session because it's really only of interest to the participants — and then only when it's 'my turn'. Still, the first half of People Place and Things is compelling, although the special effects and the crash bang wallop in Gough's head are well done, if in a slightly derived-from-Curious-Incident way. But the second half is even finer, when you see how each of the AA members progresses, and the final long scene with her mother that goes back and forth three times before settling will grip you through every line.

Film deals frequently with mental illness — from Antony Perkins’s personality disorder in Psycho via schizophrenia in Benny and Joon and A Beautiful Mind to the bipolarity in Silver Linings Playbook — but it’s rarer in mainstream theatre. Possibly the thing that held the audience’s attention in the last London revival of Equus was not so much the Langian psychiatric theorising as the fact that Daniel Radcliffe got his cock out.

If you accept that suicide can stem from similar instabilities, there are two closely related ones to observe. At the National Theatre's Lyttleton, Helen McRory is in what promises to be a remarkable revival of Terrence Rattigan’s 1952 classic The Deep Blue Sea. She plays Hester Collyer, jilted by a younger, virile airman, and we’re sending a mental health professional to review it for you. It’s a show with tickets from £15, so very accessible.

But we’d also steer you to the Arcola for Kenny Morgan, the real-life story from which Rattigan sourced his material. Morgan was the playwright’s illicit and deeply troubled lover for 10 years until, in 1949, he took his own life aged just 29. In a time before tabloid scandal and super-injunctions it’s amazing such a secret could be kept, but Lucy Bailey’s production recreates the time and place remarkably, and the neighbours in the seedy boarding house are almost as fascinating as the leads. In our book, the best fringe play in London at the moment.

Last Updated 31 May 2016