Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review: 'Tiger Under the Skin' at the Gielgud Theatre, RADA, 26th June 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Panic attacks suck. The common experience is an overwhelming feeling of doom and fear, that all but immobilises you. Sufferers think they're having a heart attack, or that they're being suffocated, or that they're about to vomit. Basically, it isn't fun. At all.

Tom Kelsey's Tiger Under the Skin tries to communicate what it's like living with anxiety and the fear of suffering panic attacks. Based on his personal experiences, we follow a fictionalised Tom as he struggles through an average day. We soon gather that he's in recovery after an unspecified spell at a mental health facility. He lives with his worried mother, rarely leaves the house and his closest companion is his dog, Digby.

We follow Tom as he walks Digby in the park, with even this wholesome and straightforward exercise fraught with tension. Then the day takes an unexpected twist when Tom is invited on a night out in town. Ordinarily, he'd make an excuse and cancel but today, for some reason, he accepts. His friends are as surprised as he is, but though going to a loud, busy nightclub is full of triggers for his attacks, he vows to make the trip. Maybe he's recovered enough to deal with this environment. Maybe not.

Tiger Under the Skin vividly communicates how anxiety manifests. There's a great moment early in the production where Tom's pessimism is characterised as a grumpy old Scotsman whinging away in the background: "it's pissing it down outside, you're staying in today", "you don't have friends any more", "you look terrible, and no-one is ever going to want you". 

There's also a wonderful scene in which a simple tube ride becomes an odyssey of pain. Being enclosed in a cramped metal tube deep underground sets off Tom's paranoia, making him convinced a bomb is going to go off, or the tunnel will slowly flood, or that a fire will inexorably burn its way down the carriage. He feels a sudden terrifying certainty that he's going to die here. The fog of a panic attack begins to seep in at the corners, and the only thing that can stave it off is nervously drumming on the back of his hand and humming the Star Wars theme.

All this is imaginatively staged and performed, with much credit due to Kelsey and the backstage crew for synchronising the performance so well with many lighting changes and sound cues. It culminates in an ending where the Tiger Under the Skin becomes literal, in which Kelsey really gets to show off his physical performance skills.

But while the ending is visually striking, the descent into more abstract action overwhelms the small-scale personal story that's worked so well up to this point. The majority of the show feels small, personal and intricate detailed, so a finale that's full of broad strokes and dramatic twists didn't sit well. I get that there needs to be a sense of escalation, but the climactic scene felt a bit Hollywood (possibly because it ends by quoting David Fincher's Fight Club).

There was one other mild annoyance: every single word Tom utters (and sometimes each syllable) is accompanied by its own gesticulation. It makes things feel weirdly artificial: the character is supposed to be introverted and anxious, yet he slices the air with his palms like a CEO delivering a keynote speech. I get that against an empty stage in a one-man play a performer needs to ensure they're visually engaging, but I wish it this was toned down a bit.

Those criticisms don't stop Tiger Under the Skin achieving its goals. A lot of thought has gone into the best way to convey to the audience what anxiety and panic attacks are like, and by the time we're applauding it's done that a few times over.

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