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Published on Sunday, 05 May 2013

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5 stars

The Nightingale (venue website)
4-5 May, 7:15pm-8:15pm
Reviewed by Darren Taffinder

 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

A musical about anorexia may not sound like the most uplifting way of spending a Saturday night. In fact, going in, I was more than a little anxious; plays about “Big Issues” can so easily end up feeling like a very special episode of Grange Hill. Especially when the words “semi-autobiographical” are used. But I needn’t have been nervous… because this one was brilliant.

In Mess, 2013 Olivier Award Nominee Caroline Horton plays Josephine, as she encounters and recovers from anorexia. In this struggle she is helped by the ever-enthusiastic Boris, played by Hannah Boyde, and musical accompaniment by Sistahl, a dead-pan Seiriol Davies. What I especially enjoyed was the rhythm of the show, and how the three performers played off each other. They each managed to bring a different energy to their characters and it’s this interplay, in particular between Josephine and Sistahl, that propelled the show along.

At the heart of it, though, is Boris – Josephine’s long-suffering friend – who often says the wrong thing, loudly, and tries to help, badly. Boris is like the rest of us, blundering though something we’re trying hard to understand, getting it more wrong than right, but being right just enough of the time. 

The interaction between the different characters, the music, and how they used the stage all added to a warm, funny, sad, but most of all deeply moving and very emphatic piece of theatre. Josephine spends much of the show sitting on a white platform topped by an umbrella, surrounded by medals and a duvet, to illustrate the separation between the sufferer and the rest of the world. Described like that, it sounds like bad performance art – but like the rest of the show, it was the opposite of pretension and highly effective.

Written by Horton herself, Mess presented anorexia in all its complexity. One of the songs I particularly enjoyed – though I’m not sure ‘enjoyed’ is entirely the right word – saw Josephine explaining how control of her weight helped her deal with her anxieties and worries. It also didn’t present recovery as an upward journey of self-betterment, but more honestly, at times with one step forward and two steps back.

Occasionally, Boris was a little bit too shouty, but my biggest complaint would be that Mess is only running for two nights. This show should have a much longer run – but what a great start for The Nightingale’s Fringe programme.

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