Josephine, Boris and Sistahl are putting on a play with some songs in it. As they pile onto the stage, tripping over each other like children doing a show for their parents, they admit that it is going to be about anorexia – but they don’t want that to put us off. In this charming ensemble piece, Olivier-nominated Caroline Horton has turned a complex personal story into a piece of theatre that is not only funny, sad and entertaining in its own right, but which brings something genuinely helpful to the dialogue surrounding anorexia.
Mess draws on Horton’s own experiences of suffering from an eating disorder, using these to tell the story of Josephine, a university student who has been plagued for years by a mixture of nerves, anxiety and full-blown panic – but who has discovered that rigidly controlling what she eats helps her to keep calm. She makes charts, listing the meals she will eat that week along with their calorie count, so that she is able to monitor her calorie intake across the whole week; she also records her exercise and her slowly decreasing weight. The pages of colour-coded numbers help her to feel that she is in control.
This is a piece that draws on the most understandable, relatable elements of Josephine’s illness – her desire to control things, her perfectionism – and shows how an eating disorder can grow from them, how these qualities become disfigured as Josephine’s illness disfigures her body. Horton and her cohorts are fully aware of the occasional absurdities of anorexia, as well as the fact that for some people it manifests as something of an obsession, a kind of addiction. The result of all this is a play about eating disorders that really need not scare anyone away: it is as funny and engaging as it is sensitive and insightful.
Horton is assisted in her tale by Hannah Boyde as Boris, Josephine’s university friend, and Seiriol Davies as Sistahl, their musical accompanist, who also provides them with sound effects. Both are excellent, with Boyde in particular seeming at first a joke as Boris, cross-dressed and vaguely 1930s, all bumbling and stiff-upper-lip – but Boris’s devotion to his friend is taken absolutely seriously and it soon becomes clear that Boyde is capable of breaking your heart with merely a look. She and Horton complement each other nicely, while Davies, whose Sistahl helps and hinders by turns, has spot-on timing from start to finish. Together, they won The Stage’s Best Ensemble award for 2012 when this show ran at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it is easy to see why. Alex Swift’s direction, too, keeps the tightly rehearsed set pieces feeling loose and spontaneous, and gets the most out of the whole cast.
Some critics have found all the whimsy a little too cloying, and while that’s fair enough, for me it was perfect. This is a love letter to life, after all, with all of its joy and all of its mess, from a woman who became so ill that she was simply removed from it. There is magic in the very seams of this production; to say much more would be to spoil its beautiful surprises.
Before going to see Mess I spent some time trying to choose who to bring with me. I dithered, knowing the subject manner: so many of the close friends I considered inviting had struggled themselves with an eating disorder, or been affected by the struggles of close family members, or close friends. To say that it is becoming a horribly common problem is not to trivialise these illnesses or to dismiss their importance: rather, this is exactly why they are so important, and why Mess demands to be seen. Because the lives of women and men across the country are riddled with this, punctured by the echo of their own calorie-counting, or their sister’s, or their friend’s, and this is a play that both cares and understands.
Mess is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Battersea Arts Centre website.