Can eating disorders ever be funny? Surely we’ve all been in situations so awful that the only response we can make is to laugh. This is the method Caroline Horton uses in Mess to tackle anorexia, bravely staging a version of her own struggle with the illness. Horton, who was nominated for an Olivier for You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, also plays her lead character Josephine, an anorexia sufferer navigating the emotional journey to “feeling ok most of the time”, with the help of her loyal friend Boris who is played by Hannah Boyde. They are joined by Seiriol Davies as Sistahl who handles the songs, music and sound effects, as well as providing plenty of meta-theatrical banter.
The fourth character, anorexia, is ever-present in the form of a large bathmat-covered pedestal topped with a fluffy duvet and a parasol, from which Josephine hangs her weight-loss medals. The symbolism is obvious: anorexia is the comforting place Josephine retreats to, a way of being in absolute control of something in an unpredictable world. With input from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, as well as Horton’s personal experiences, Mess is a sensitive, enlightening look at an illness which is rampant in a modern society obsessed with looks, competition and body image. Horton makes us feel Josephine’s battle with self-inflicted suffering through her relapse, after seeing a new, tiny girl brought into the hospital where she’s recovering, and the tenderness and confusion of Boris, trying desperately to persuade her to eat by bringing her a birthday cake.
These are the poignant moments of the production: yet we’re swept through the rest of Josephine’s story through a hilarious mixture of bickering over how the play should run, and Hammer Horror-style musical accompaniment and dodgy sound effects from Sistahl. The overall effect is whimsical; Josephine is dressed in a silky doll’s dress, pink fairy lights illuminate the way to anorexia, and the cast frequently break into song. At some points, though, it does feel that the point is somehow being missed, or even trivialised. Mess is one very funny show, but the subject matter, anorexia, is clearly a very serious, challenging illness. A few more of those poignant moments wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Mess has been touring since April of this year after a run at the Traverse Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe last August, and this performance at the PULSE Festival at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich marks the end of the tour. The focus of PULSE this year has been on offering stage space and the opportunity for audience feedback to works-in-progress, and Horton’s play offers a nice transition, demonstrating how unfinished scratches can develop into confident, inspirational productions. There are still plenty more shows to see at the PULSE Festival, which runs until June 8.
Mess played at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich on June 3 as part of the PULSE Festival. For more information about the festival, please visit the New Wolsey Theatre website.