Friday, January 10, 2020

Review: 'Lullabies for the Lost' at the Old Red Lion, 9th January 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

We're only ten days into the new decade, a continent has ignited, we appear to be perched on the precipice of a world war and we have five years of Boris Johnson to look forward to. If there was ever a time for an anxious play, this is it.

Rosalind Blessed's Lullabies for the Lost is a collection of monologues from people living with various mental health issues. There's a skeletal narrative about these characters being trapped together in some kind of monochrome purgatory and having to earn the right to escape it. But this framework is just the cracker on which some extremely miserable cheese is served.

And man oh man, this is some absolutely brutal stuff. From the first monologue on the characters are talking about self-harm, the way their bodies are falling apart, the filth in which they live, the way their minds rebel against them and their sorrow at watching their potential trickle through their fingers like sand through an hourglass. Fat bubbles up through too-deep self-inflicted cuts, throats are slashed with broken wine glasses, vomit smears the walls.

The show hits such high notes of desperation and misery that it wasn't particularly surprising when someone fainted mid-way through and they had to pause the show to check that she was alright. For all I know this person might have had low blood sugar or something, but I assumed that the material was so visceral her brain noped out.

But though it hits those high notes, they're mercifully not sustained. There are laughs amongst the misery as the characters examine the surreal and ridiculous places their condition takes them. For example, an in early monologue about social anxiety and depression, Chris Porter's Larry tries to come up with an excuse why he can't attend a meal. He considers telling them his cat has had a stroke. There's a beat. "... Do cats have strokes?"

These moments of comedy are a double-edged sword. Laughing along with these characters cements our emotional connection with them, which only makes the pits of their despair that much more crushing.

Fringe plays about mental illness aren't exactly uncommon - at any given time there will be various confessional monologues about how miserable the writer's life is going on in a room above London pubs. But Lullabies for the Lost casts its net wider than the playwright's personal experience, showing us that there are many different ways to be in pain, all of which come loaded with their own particular horrors.

You might argue that this play is being sad for sad's sake: like Madame Tussauds' Chamber of Horrors but for mental illness. But there's a mile-wide empathic streak running right through the show, culminating in a video appearance from Hildegard Neil giving us assurance that we should stop being so neurotic and muddled up as "you're just not that important". That's not exactly a traditional pick-me-up, but realizing that no-one gives that much of a shit about what you look like, how successful you are and what you do can be an intensely liberating experience.

All this is delivered by a fantastic (and very well chosen) cast. In a play like this it's silly to pick favourites, but I've been a fan of Helen Bang for ages and she's as great as she usually is here. I also really enjoyed Kate Tydman's Nerys, who nails presenting an outwardly healthy and confident exterior while rotting away behind closed doors. But, perhaps because he gets the most nightmarish monologue of all, Duncan Wilkins' performance is the one that's going to stick in the memory longest.

This all adds up to a not exactly fun night at the theatre, but definitely a worthwhile one. I had actually been suffering from a pretty brutal cold all week and prior to the show was weighing up just staying in bed. But Lullabies for the Lost synced up perfectly with my gloomy, drowsy and stuffed up state of mind. Nothing is sugar-coated here, and the night is all the better for it.

Lullabies for the Lost is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 31st January. Tickets here.

Images are courtesy of Adam Trigg.

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