The most striking thing about Dinosaur Dreams, an original play by Will Adolphy, is its unflinching directness. Conceived in consultation with mental health professionals, the play charts Charlie’s (Ben Manz) arrival in an inpatient facility and probes the inner workings of his mind as well as the structures society places around the mentally ill. It is this stark brevity, at only 55 minutes long, that makes Adolphy’s script so compelling.
The play operates in a range of spaces. There is of course the physical world of the hospital. Charlie and another patient Ruby (played by Ella Road) are constantly bumping against the edges of this space, as if attempting to escape its physical confines, as well as the label it confers on them. The world of doctors, nurses and the administrative tedium of finding oneself classified as mentally ill is gently satirised- not to poke fun at mental health professionals, but to bring relief into the absurdities of the system.
The show also deftly incorporates Charlie’s mental landscape: voiceovers dramatise his intrusive thoughts and there several flashback and dream sequences which are overlaid on the physical world of the hospital. Then there is what the characters refer to as their “escape” world- the references to music, film and TV builds another plane which allows the characters to transcend their physical and mental entrapment. These, of course, aren’t new concepts, but the way in which they are co-exist and intermingle through the duration of the performance feels fresh and arresting.
The programme says that the performance’s aim is to “humanise mental health and prevent stigma”. Luckily, despite a few moments of slightly overblown lyricism, this never felt forced or overly worthy. The “messages” and thematic concerns were allowed to arise naturally through Charlie’s adjustment to hospital life, interaction with staff and other patients, troubles with medication and, most strikingly of all, his experiences and difficulties with talking therapies. This element of the work was perhaps the most visceral and affecting. Common platitudes surrounding mental illness (“Just smile!” “Talking makes it better!”) were not necessarily deconstructed, but examined critically and in such a way tat opened up discussion, rather than shutting it down.
All five cast members give strong individual performances, but what unites them is how they totally inhabit their characters from a physical standpoint. From the nervous twitch Manz gives Charlie, to the torment and anguish written on his mother’s (Louise Lingwood) face, and the psychiatrist’s (Nigel Fyfe) alert but slightly awkward pose on the edge of his seat, each actor finds a way to perfectly embody their character’s mental battles in a physical way.
This is also reflected in the work’s staging. The scenes are short and clipped and the characters flit on and off, never lingering to too long. I mean this as a compliment; we don’t get to know the characters, just as they don’t fully know themselves.
In sum, Dinosaur Dreams is a taut, provocative, and at times wryly funny, play which makes a valuable contribution to the debate around metal health.
Dinosaur Dreams is playing at the Etcetera Theatre until 10 July. For more information and tickets, see www.etceteratheatre.com.