Hearing Things, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Martin Pettitt

The subject of mental health and its lack of provision in the NHS is a hot issue and one I am close to myself. The recent announcements by the government of further plans and funding to tackle the problem have been met with skepticism from those in the profession. Hearing Things is a show that sets out to show how these issues are played out at ground level and how they affect those that manage and use mental health services on a day-to-day basis. Through extensive research and workshopping, the piece follows a handful of characters as they attempt to traverse the potholes of their own, and others, mental health issues.

The stage set consists of a beach (a beige carpet with a border of sand), two chairs and other accoutrements that are bought in and out depending on the characters. The story revolves around psychiatrist Nicolas as he deals not only with the difficulties of his patients, but also the bureaucracy of the system, the ignorance of others, and the affect his own mental health difficulties has on all of the above. The scenes and threads of the different relationships in his life weave in amongst each other as the props and use of voice and accent provide a pleasing distinction between character and time. We also follow two of his patients, Janet and Innocence, and their similar battles as their mental health is often thwarted by the system purporting to help with it.

The acting is good and occasionally great in the whirlwind of a show; the progression and intimacy between the characters is brilliantly handled and provides some touching moments – the interaction between Janet and Innocence being particularly moving. The constant changes and short scenes keeps things interesting and the pacing is good. The little difference in the lives of the characters, despite the official roles they are playing, is a thought-provoking tenet of the story and provides a grounding to the play and a message that is provocative and hard to stomach.

Overall it is hard to criticise a show that has gone to such lengths to research its subject but there is something unconvincing here. Sometimes the words coming from the character’s mouths sound more like they are read from a brochure on why mental health provision is failing rather than from the characters themselves. The show has all the right words in the right places but nothing really provides a fresh viewpoint. It is well acted, tender and well-paced but I want something more, it didn’t really change my perception of the issues presented.

Hearing Things runs through 12 February.

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