Mental health has become a much more important issue in today’s society. It is estimated that one in four people will be affected by their mental health at one point in their life, and adverts that highlight the current stigma around the topic are regularly on the TV and in the papers. So it’s not difficult to see why this topic has been taken up by HCCT and translated into a play. Writer Des Marshal has turned his involvement in drop-in centres for the Camden unemployed into an introspective story about a man trying to cope with his struggles whilst being a stand-up comedian. I applaud the subject material (it’s a topic that should definitely be highlighted in today’s society) but can’t help but think that the writing itself is not as successful.
The (loose) plot to this play sees Dizzy Des (Michael Roy Andrew) recounting his life and career as a stand-up comedian plagued with mental health issues. As he retells his story, other characters join in to help him remember his past. These supporting roles take the form of other members of the drop-in centre, people influential to Des’s narrative and even other personalities within his own psyche
The problem with the story on the whole is that there isn’t really a story to tell. Marshal seems to have written a biographical plot that jumps from a narrative of the present drop-in centre to flashbacks into the past, including events with a social worker and psychiatrist. Then, every so often, all of the characters suddenly break off to mime along with supposedly poignant musical interludes. Perhaps all of this jumping between trains of thought is intentional and represents Des’s fragmented mental state, but that does not come across clearly. The whole thing just feels thrown together with no flow, and it makes me uneasy. The final few minutes descend into the theatrical equivalent of a tantrum, where Andrew seems to use this opportunity to moan about everything in today’s society that he doesn’t agree with. The whole thing wouldn’t be out of place in pub or club, with some amateur comedian performing a self-indulgent rant as his act.
There are a couple of scenarios that I enjoyed. Dizzy Dan’s (Roger Sansom) scenes as the psychiatrist are well conveyed, although the characterisation is a touch creepy – with middle-class disdain – and slightly over the top. Here I felt as though I were in Des’s shoes and could sympathise with the inadequate support he seems to receive in combating his issues. This scene is the first time that the actors as a group seem to relax, and Dizzy Dolly (Judi Bowker) in particular comes into her own. Bowker’s monologues are the most convincing, vulnerable and emotional, yet stoic and proud. The social worker scenes are also a highlight – Dizzy Doreen’s (Vicki Kempton) portrayal really brings to life the pressure that social workers are under to keep standards up with inadequate resources. Dizzy Den (Michael Staveley) overall has the most convincing character portrayal, with nervous ticks and facial expressions that show a drug addict on the fringes of society.
This play is well-intentioned and has the potential to delve into a really interesting subject matter that is an increasing concern in the UK today. But it doesn’t hit hard enough: it falls flat. I imagine Des must have felt the same – a lot to say but ultimately no-one who would listen.
The Stand Up and Down is playing at Camden People’s Theatre until 21 June. For more information and tickets see the Camden People’s Theatre website.