Monday, August 7, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Gutted' at Pleasance Dome, 7th August 2017

Gutted reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Usually when I say a show has got its head shoved up its arse that's a bad thing. Not so with the excellent one woman show Gutted, which chronicles performer Liz Richardson's battle with ulcerative colitis - a condition that seems to involve randomly shitting blood all over the place. I say it's a battle, but it sounds like more of a drawn out war - Liz having spent her life bouncing in and out of hospital wards as her condition flares up, gets better, flares up again and so on.

Eventually she's exhausted all her options for treatment and things are only getting worse. Her doctor proposes radical surgery - removing her bowel and forming a 'pouch' from her small intestine. While this heals she'll have a stoma: her small intestine poking out of her belly and leaking her waste into an ileostomy bag. Theoretically, it's a temporary measure, but a proportion of these 'pouches' fail and there's a chance she could be ileostomy'd for life.

This condition, which apparently affects one in 420 people in the UK, isn't really in the public eye. This primarily because a) it's considered embarrassing and b) it involves a lot of poop. It also tends to affect young people, who are understandably a little squeamish about standing up and being the public face for an undignified bowel condition.

But, quite rightly, Liz Richardson wants to create a forum to publically discuss conditions like this. And so, Gutted presents her story in the most matter-of-fact way possible - explaining candidly what it's like to suffer from this disease, the hurdles she's cleared during treatment and the way people around her have reacted to it. Her delivery is cool, crisp and concise, taking on various personae who've assisted her along the way: leaky pensioners, paranoid teenage girls, bossy nurses and the impeccably named gastroenterologist Doctor Goodhands (and you'd hope so too, given where they're going).

You realise early on that Liz is incredibly difficult to embarrass. After all, she's spent countless hours with doctors probing around in her anus, her family and friends helping with her ileostomy bag, dealing with the anal seepage, and having to be catherised and cleaned by nurses. I imagine that after you've been through all that, standing in front of strangers and giving them a guided tour of your colonoscopy is easy street.

This all makes Gutted is a fantastically educational show. The explanation of how a colectomy and ileal pouch work was particularly fascinating. Liz using herself as anatomical mode, to demonstrate, drawing her colon and small intestine onto her belly and then erasing and redrawing it to show the results of the operation. 

Her crystal clear explanation of the stoma and ileostomy bag was similarly neat, conveying the weird body horror of suddenly having a pulsing, oozing extra orifice on your body that kind of looks like a biological USB port. One of my favourite incidental details of the show was that the NHS literature strongly recommending that patients with stomas do not use them for sexual escapades - I would love to know the story behind that.

But behind all this is a genuinely heartwarming tale of how Liz' family and partner came together to support her through all this. Throughout the show audience members read dialogue from her partner Luke and her mother, each of them proving how important it is to have people you can rely on no matter what, and how love can shine through even in the most unpleasant or embarrassing of moments. 

The cherry on top is Liz saying "I will never hear a bad word said about the NHS".  It left me wondering what it might have cost her if she'd been born in the US, so I googled a bit and learned that she'd be on the hook for $40,000 just for the pouch surgery. Once you add in drug treatments, incidental incurred in hospital visits someone like Liz would be looking at a bill the hundreds of thousands of dollars - and as a further kick in the teeth "people living with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) commonly have problems obtaining affordable insurance". The NHS really is something to treasure and fight for.

Liz Richardson has metaphorically and literally seen a lot of shit in her life, but  in a Jodorowskyian twist, she's turned that shit into gold. Gutted is a fantastic and important Fringe experience: bold, confident and entirely genuine.

Gutted is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Aug 8-13. Tickets here.

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