Tiger Under My Skin, RADA Festival

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by Laura Kressly

Panic attacks can make you want to tear your skin off so the animal underneath has room to breathe. For the character Tom Kelsey embodies in this solo-performance, that feeling is a daily reality. In an attempt to live a ‘normal’ life and beat ‘the fog’, he agrees to a night out that should be a good laugh with the lads, but his poor mental health means that this is far from easy.

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Elephant in the Room, Camden People’s Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

What’s your anxiety like? For Michael, he feels stuck to the spot, unable to force himself to keep walking or to get out bed, or put on his hoodie. He knows he needs help but when he tries to discuss his worries with his friends, he is laughed at, brushed off or told to toughen up. Lost and alone, his struggles are captured in this physical, solo performance that gives a detailed perspective on the helplessness, expectations and daily struggles of a man struggling with mental health issues.

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A Gym Thing, Pleasance Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

Will is having a rough time so isn’t inclined to leave his Playstation. His worried mate Jay convinces him to join the gym with him, in the hope that it pulls him out of his funk. Unknowingly, Jay creates a monster. The gym gives Will not just new-found purpose, but triggers an addiction that totally transforms him from quiet and shy into a vain, self-absorbed and destructive force.

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Beetles From the West, Lion & Unicorn Theatre

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Half of the UK population born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Considering this figure, cancer rarely features as the primary subject matter in theatre, though last year there were several productions that put it at the forefront. I caught two of them in Edinburgh: The Eulogy of Toby Peach and Goodstock. James Hartnell’s debut play, Beetles From the West, is also driven by a diagnosis. Set in a hospital waiting room, immature Boyd waits with his girlfriend for news of his father’s health after a sudden collapse that’s left him unconscious. A young doctor’s attempts to explain what’s going on are aggressively questioned as Boyd comes to terms with what it all means. Hartnell’s script, obviously early career from its unwieldy text and underdeveloped characters, spotlights the importance of cancer screenings but it needs more development to have greater impact.

A combination of flowery, metaphor-filled monologues directed to the audience and simplistic scenes between the characters attempts to show range, but they are so dramatically different that they seem spoken by different characters. Dialogue paints Boyd (Ryan Penny) and his girlfriend Jenny (Amy Doyle) as immature and ignorant young teenagers. Their monologues have a more mature gravitas, but these contrasting tones don’t reconcile. The transitions in the writing are abrupt and jarring, creating an unconvincing baseline reality. Hartnell has a sense of dramatic arc and a satisfying ending that suits an awareness piece, but individual scenes and monologues sit clumsily within it. The script does manage not to preach, though.

There’s little subtlety or depth in the characters despite their dialogue, but Penny, Doyle and Matthew Marrs as the doctor attack them with gusto. Penny also directs, and favours heightened performances – though this might suit the language, it clashes with the thematic content. It’s an interesting choice, but not one that consistently works. There are some moments of good chemistry, particularly when the doctor reveals details of his own past – though highly unprofessional and unlikely to happen in the real world.

Beetles From the West shows cancer isn’t a battle, it’s a disease we are just as likely to get as not. It reminds us to monitor our mental and physical health and have symptoms investigated, something men are more likely to neglect than women. This is definitely a men’s health play, though it doesn’t alienate women. It’s just a shame that the script doesn’t do the themes justice or give the performers properly developed, meaty roles.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Weald, Finborough Theatre

As picturesque as agrarian life may be with it’s rustic farmhouses, sweeping land and livestock, it is not an easy one for older and younger generations who just want to make a decent living. Faded and weather worn, Sam looks after his horses as he’s done his whole life; the younger Jim is all bouncy, boyish banter. The two clearly have much affection for each other in this emotive story of a tragic hero’s fall. But Daniel Foxsmith’s Weald, though full of poetry, passion and the ability to find the audience’s raw nerves, at just over an hour it sells itself short and lacks the sweat and earthiness of farm labour.

Sam (David Crellin) and Jim (Dan Parr) spend most of their time in a barn surrounded by riding tack and looking after horses. Though everything seems well, dramatic revelations are eventually confessed, bringing fiery conflict between the two. Crellin and Parr’s performances are exemplary, with emotional journeys that are the kind actors dream of. They both relish Foxsmith’s rich language and have a wonderfully watchable presence. Their character journeys feel rushed, though; this is wholly down to the script. It’s too short to justify Sam’s final, sudden deterioration that harks of Shakespeare’s Henry V should he have failed at Agincourt.

Bryony Shanahan’s direction taps into the poetic and powerful heart of the script that addresses coming to terms with personal failure, life choices and platonic male relationships that span decades. Her regular use of the audience space shows this is a story that won’t be contained. Though a masculine play, it’s still accessible to female audience members what with the themes that transcend gender. As a failed actor having to adapt to a new and totally unplanned for life, Sam’s struggles particularly resonate and left me feeling exposed and vulnerable, but the grit endemic to farming is glaringly absent. Linguistically heady, Weald lacks a visceral-ness. Even Sam’s final actions when faced with his own ruin are stylised, distancing the audience from the characters’ emotional life.

This is still a beautiful play with fine performances and painfully relevant to present day economic uncertainty, but it’s a sanitised version of real life. Though Sam and Jim mock the wealthy city family that bought the farm house, covering it in solar panels and driving a spotless Range Rover, their daily routine as depicted in the script bears more resemblance to the unseen city man with his shiny wellies than the true life of yard workers.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.