CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS
Former actress-turned-playwright Geraldine Alexander’s new play, Amygdala, looks at how the brain responds to trauma in different people. Catherine (Hermione Gulliford) is a married, middle-aged lawyer whose strong capacity for logic and reason have always guided her every decision. However, this is turned upside down by a chance meeting with charming 26-year-old Joshua (Alex Lanipekun) that teaches her to let her instincts guide her, with devastating consequences.
Many of the scenes between Joshua and Catherine are very touching, and Catherine’s character in particular is extremely likeable and believable in moments of flashback. Gulliford portrays Catherine’s logical, reasoned thinking very convincingly, building a foundation for sympathy with the character throughout the play. In flashbacks, the character is particularly well-written; it is easy to understand her thought processes and motivations, and Gulliford’s natural charisma definitely endeared me to the character. Lanipekun’s physicality is perfect for his role, and he embodies the character’s youthful naivety and blasé outlook on much of life admirably. That I left the theatre not knowing what to think of these characters is testament to the hard work of the actors: they manage to remain highly sympathetic, at the same time as failing to think about the consequences of their actions, in a way which easily could have been annoying in the hands of anyone less capable.
However, I was concerned that Alexander’s portrayal of Catherine’s mental illness strays at times towards the realm of cliché. Catherine is frequently seen singing under her breath while staring blankly into space and rocking, often addressing inanimate objects. This is a conception of mental illness that in this day and age ought to be thoroughly worn out and irrelevant, and falls short of capturing the complexities of intense inner anguish. At times I found her grief totally unbelievable, and completely failed to sympathise with the character because of this over-the-top portrayal. Catherine’s more lucid moments at the end of the play are far more convincing of her emotional turmoil, and feel a lot more natural. We are then able to see the underlying reasons behind her behaviour, and comprehend the nuances of the character in a way that was previously left out of the play, and of which I wish we could have seen more.
Jasper Britton (Simon) brilliantly channels the detached professional side of his character, delivering his lines with matter-of-fact conviction and apparent wisdom, and performs very well throughout the piece. Yet I disliked the way the character develops through the script, and his behaviour towards the end is not credible based on what we have already seen of him. Perhaps this is an attempt to demonstrate how extreme situations can affect the character of a person; however, this is a little misguided, especially considering that this idea should probably have been fully focused on the other characters.
Francesca Reidy’s set design is one of the highlights of the piece. Compartments in the stage that open to reveal props are well-used, allowing characters to introduce new items and ideas seamlessly without interrupting the action. However, the shape of the room means that a lot of action is missed. Joshua Carr’s lighting design is also very well-conceived. Actors are always hit by the light appropriately and the use of spots mean we always knew where to look. In particular, the backlighting on the windows at either end of the room is helpful in conveying the sense of Catherine being trapped in the institution, and use of fairy lights as stars brilliantly portrays the appearance of an ethereal and idealised Catherine in Joshua’s mind.
Some of the decisions on props, however, are very strange. It is difficult to understand why, when no other items are mimed, both Catherine and Joshua pretend to be on the phone at least twice. It is also odd that Joshua openly references Catherine’s shoes as being beautiful, when these have been glaringly absent from the outset. Equally I am unsure that it is necessary for Joshua to mime playing the saxophone whenever the music comes on. The fact that he obviously isn’t playing looks strange rather than stylistic, and simply holding the instrument would have been enough to signify his musical talents.
This is a well-acted first play from Geraldine Alexander, who shows great promise for a new writer. Although the characterisation in the writing is sometimes a little odd, the play nonetheless engages its audience well, primarily due to the strong performances which guide it through some of the weaker moments in the writing.
Amygdala is playing at The Print Room Balcony until 14 December. For more information and tickets, see The Print Room website.