Friday, February 19, 2016
'One Under' at the Vault Festival, 18th February 2016
Friday, February 19, 2016 by londoncitynights
Mental illness is no laughing matter.
Well, not usually.
One Under is a one woman comedy show by Amy Fleming that explores attitudes to mental illness. Equal parts social experiment/personal catharsis/ersatz game show, the hour long piece sets out to understand what makes us tick.
Fleming, a graduate in Molecular Medicine, approaches her subject with a pleasantly thorough faux-scientific rigour. At various times we're quizzed as to whether certain quotes indicate mental illness, given a broad outline of genetics and epigenetics and gently guided through ways of dealing with the onset of crippling depression.
Large chunks of the show are autobiographical. Fleming explains that the key event in her childhood was her father's suicide, an event that's reverberated throughout her entire life. Binding this together with her knowledge of biology, she ponders whether she's inherited her father's genetic predisposition for depression.
In candid tones she reveals the existence of her mental 'bully'; that weaselly, nagging voice at in the back of your head whispering that your efforts are doomed to failure (just like always). She asks whether a flirtation with suicide is really that worrying, tells us about her teenage crying jags and, most uncomfortably, simulates a performance nightmare, including a shameful muttered apology to her Mum.
Right now you're probably thinking that this sounds like a complete and utter downer. Well it isn't - Fleming is like a top chef when it comes to maintaining a balance in her dish. Sure you get a teaspoon of uncomfortable confession here, a pinch of tragedy there, but they're leavened with big heaping dollops of straightforwardly charming comedy.
Fleming quickly proves a charismatic and entertaining host, effortlessly corralling her audience exactly where she wants them. It's a bit risky to have a 'serious' show with large amounts of audience interaction - you only need one drunken loudmouth for things to go seriously off-piste. But Fleming knows what she's doing - keeping us so entertained and avoiding excessive preaching.
Awareness of the scope and seriousness of mental illness is an important topic and Fleming does such a good job of communicating her experiences with it that any criticism feels a touch churlish. Nonetheless, the game show sequences of the show are a little bit scrappy; with the audience occasionally mildly perplexed about what we're being asked or what we're trying to achieve.
I get that the gameshow format is merely the cream cracker on which the delicious brie of mental illness awareness is layered, but it stands out as an area that could be tightened up a smidge.
But hey, this is good stuff. I'm often a bit wary of shows that approach depressing subjects with irreverent humour - in my experience cutesey tweeness is never far away. So it's to Fleming's credit that she excises every last trace of "hippy dippy wanky bullshit". She leaves the stage for us to ponder a marvellously poignant image - an animated CT scan of her brain.
A great finale, though it means she doesn't get a proper round of applause.
She deserves one.
One Under is at the Vault Festival until 21st February. Details and tickets here.Tags: Amy fleming , comedy , mental illness , suicide , The Vault Festival , theatre