A Pint Sized Conversation set itself up as a chat, as the kind of conversation we should be having everywhere – in our pubs, homes, schools and libraries. We entered in to Juju’s bar to discover an area of seating and staging, webbed all over with strings to which were pegged little packets of crisps. We were encouraged to choose a flavour, with the accommodating cast members darting here and there to locate flavours out of reach and to bring these little packets to the audience members. Have a drink, eat the crisps, this is going to be like a chill at the pub was the basic message, and in moments certainly this show feels conversational and communal. The audience is asked to write down three things that have made them happy in the last twenty-four hours, and these are shared in one of the most uplifting and touching moments of theatre I have seen in a long time. There was a shared pleasure in hearing about the little and the big things that have made people’s days worthwhile. A show being picked up by a major TV channel, or getting away with doing no work at work all day, each little snippet of happiness is shared amongst the audience in a way that connects and comforts.
Yet, for the most part, this show could not be much further from a casual conversation, and rightly so: the subject is depression, and mental health more generally, from definitions and diagnoses to the quite frankly pitiful state response to what is becoming a crisis. Did you know, that in order to qualify for treatment in Cambridge, you have to have attempted suicide not once, but twice? It is certainly more informative than your average conversation in the pub, and the cast of four deliver information such as the above fact without becoming mawkish or overindulgent: the facts are simply put amongst us, planted like shocking and horrible flowers. More affecting though than these statistics and figures are the personal stories: each cast member has a moment of explaining their relationship to depression and mental illness through their experience of someone close to them suffering. My friend. My sister. My cousin. My step-dad. The stories are told with clear emotion, with a sense of absolute honesty; it feels less like theatre and more like a protest, a prayer or a confession. There is absolutely no artistic gloss at these points, and it is blisteringly painful to hear and to recognise the ubiquity of suffering in this particular field. It is totally human, and raw, and urgently, desperately necessary.
It’s not all being drawn on a rack though! This play also features really beautiful and highly stylised moments that contrast with the visceral realities of the stories. In a visually and aurally engaging moment, the crisps on the line are replaced with words and phrases relating to depression, the cast babbling over each other, each telling only one thread of a complex web of meaning and experience. The words are left hanging there in the space amongst us, until the line are cut down to make way for the rest of the show: then they lie on the floor, ever present reminders of the complexity and diversity of mental ill-health, and the struggles and limitations of seeking final definitions. There is also a truly gorgeous sequence, reminiscent of something from 90s children’s telly, in which we are taken on a psychedelic and glowing tour of the inside of a brain. Strings of lights flicker and flash, and areas of the brain are given their own distinctive characters. The cast did well to find the celebration in this exploration, to make the brain something beautiful and complex rather than a frightening enigma.
Moments of physical theatre are also exquisite and deeply affecting: from the simple and recurring motif of examining a hand under the light of a torch, to more complex routines of semantic gesture, the whole cast are talented and imaginative physical performers who use this medium to add great depth to this show. A particularly striking sequence relates to routines, with a gradual physical chaos aptly depicting disconnect and frustration, the moment serving as a critique of our society in which we are sociable yet unengaged to the point where we can have no idea how someone is really feeling. Only slight critiques of this show would be that at times the performers felt rushed in a way that wasn’t serving the piece, and sound levels were occasionally imbalanced so that speech became slightly drowned in background music. Turn the music down a touch, and take your time, would be my advice to these brave performers, who asked for feedback post-show. I would have stayed, to talk these things through, but I feared my words would not make it past the lump in my throat. This show left me feeling hopeful that it may be the beginning of the change we need. It deserves a bigger stage, because it is truly relevant to all.