I’d forgotten how much I like pub theatres. Aside from making me feel like I’m at the Edinburgh Fringe even though I’m missing out this year, these cramped, hot spaces lend themselves to the intimacy and intensity required for plays that depend upon on the audience being able to see the minutiae of emotion flicker across the actors’ faces. Such is the case for Medicine at the Hope Theatre, the London debut for Northern Irish playwright and actor Meghan Tyler.
Tyler, who also stars as Moira, states that the play comes ‘from a very lived experience’, and this is its most visceral strength. In drawing upon on her own personal experience of mental illness, she brings authenticity to what is admittedly not a ground-breaking premise. Medicine, unlike other incarnations of plays featuring one character threatening suicide and another to talk them down, is not melodramatic but honest; a gut-wrenching portrayal of a young girl (Moira) suffering from crippling depression, and her mother (played by Lynsey-Anne Moffat) trying desperately to save her.
The unoriginality of the set-up is belied by the importance of igniting and continuing the dialogue around the theme of mental health. This is the aim of Medicine, and it is a worthy one. Tyler subverts the arguably hackneyed premise through refreshingly dark humour, undercutting the tragedy with biting wit, resulting in a piece of theatre that is at once powerful, funny and grimly necessary.
Paul Brotherston, who directs and designs, has a skilfully light touch with both. The set is sparse, consisting of a single piece of white lino to evoke the shape of the pier protruding into the audience. Aside from the continuous sound effect of breaking waves, a bench and some muted lighting, that’s it. The minimalism of the staging is a blank canvas on which the actors can shine, and shine they most certainly do. Brotherston’s direction – like all the best – appears to melt away, resulting in the characters’ movements seeming fluid and organically driven rather than directed. Or perhaps this is a result of both Tyler’s and Moffat’s performances, which are equally convincing and compelling. Tyler even avoids the temptation that befalls many an actor/dramaturge in not giving herself all of the best lines.
In fact, the dialogue is positively ringing with Moira and Ma’s parrying wits and dry sarcasm, eliciting frequent and loud guffaws from the tightly packed audience. The Irish Catholic mother-daughter dynamic is wholly believable (and for this reviewer hits a little close to home), as is their complex but ultimately tender relationship. As an audience, we enjoy their banter but feel their pain, and this is why it works. I also appreciate the fact that the two actors appear to be swigging real wine.
I agree wholeheartedly with Tyler’s assertion that comedy is the best vehicle for discussing these issues. Tempering the abject suffering of an abyss-like depression with Irish craic is a way into the heart of the matter. Laughter, after all, is the best medicine.
Medicine is playing at The Hope Theatre until 1 September. For more information and tickets, click here.
Photo: Alex Fine