You should hope you never have to grapple with mental health law and the rules and regulations governing treatment without consent. While it's never personally affected me, I frequently encounter it in my professional life and I've seen the emotional burden it places on families and individuals. All this made Paper Creature's Section 2 an equally moving and instructive theatrical experience.
Written by Peter Imms, and based on his own personal experiences of a friend being sectioned, Section 2 is a modest drama about a young man, Cam (Nathan Coenen) who, for no obvious reason, started behaving erratically. He is subsequently placed under a 'Section 2', which means you can be detained in a hospital for up to 28 days.
We open the play on the 28th day, on which it will be decided whether Cam can be released to his girlfriend Kay (Alexandra Da Silva). She has spent the last month slowly unravelling at the stress of visiting the clinic, observing Cam's behaviour and the uncertainty of the future. Evaluating whether he should be released is Cam's key worker Rachel (Esma Patey-Ford), balances sympathy with Cam and Kay against her medical impartiality.
Walking in the middle of this is Pete (Jon Tozzi). He's a school friend of Cam's who hasn't seen him in five years, yet recently received a call from him asking if he'd visit. He's essentially the audience viewpoint: a reason for the characters to explain the situation to the audience and react the way we're reacting.
Much of what makes Section 2 so effective is what it chooses not to do. This is a naturalistic, sensibly staged, linear human drama with a laser focus on its goals. I've seen theatre about mental health that seizes upon the idea of a disorganised mind and uses it as a springboard for a load of avant-garde wankery. Not here: Cam's condition isn't sensationalised at all, making it that much.
Imms wrote the play with input from the mental health charity Mind, who ensured that the technical and legal details of the story are accurate. This attention to detail is obvious in the final product, from Kay's slow-burning desperation at watching Cam appear to deteriorate the longer he's at the hospital, to the memory loss and slowness caused by his medication, down to the drab breezeblock walls punctuated by creased 'uplifting' posters.
In addition to a carefully written script and sensible staging, the performances are uniformly brill. Da Silva's Kay is believably frayed at the edges, trying and failing to suppress her frustrations and to do her best for her partner. A breakdown late in the show teeters on the edge of being too broad, but Da Silva has put in the performative legwork to make it come off. Meanwhile, Patey-Ford gives a masterclass in pragmatism, treating the situation with a tragic familiarity. You sense she has seen situations like this play out many times before and knows how long and painful the road ahead for Cam is going to be.
But it's Nathan Coenen's Cam at the centre of the play, and he delivers one of the most intensely realistic portrayals of a severe mental health condition I've seen in on stage in a very long time. In the most gut-wrenching moments, he plaintively explains that he knows something is wrong but has no idea what. This intense apologetic vulnerability is at odds with what we hear about his outgoing, rugby star past, making his confused diminishment and the brief moments the 'old' Cam surfaces into extremely powerful theatre.
This all adds up to an emotionally and intellectually satisfyingly three-dimensional drama that doesn't screw about. It's not the easiest play in the world to watch, but learning about this topic is important and I genuinely feel I've had a peek behind the curtain at the consequences of mental health law. Recommended.
Section 2 is at The Bunker until 7 July. Tickets here.