Review: The Almighty Sometimes

When Anna makes a life-changing decision the people around her are forced to ask how responsible they are for her condition in this powerful Royal Exchange play about mental illness and medication

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Eighteen year old Anna has been living with severe mental illness since she was a young girl. As she matures into adulthood, she begins to question who she is and who she might have been were it not for the medication she is on, which may be keeping her stable or restricting her creative talents – or possibly both.

We hear about Anna’s behaviour as a child – how, at the age of seven, she wrote a letter bequeathing her toys to her friends before throwing herself out of her (ground floor) bedroom window. We hear the stories she used to write, eloquent Grimm-like fairy tales, including one about a floating girl who takes a knife and drags it “down her body, top to bottom, opening herself up like a leather bag”. To Anna, looking back, her behaviour then was the result of wild, creative outbursts from a child with a prodigious talent and a vivid imagination, looking for ways to cope after the death of her father. To her mother and her psychiatrist they are the manifestations of a terrible and potentially debilitating illness.

Now Anna wants to come off her medication to discover “who she really is”.

Norah Lopez Holden embodies Anna perfectly. Her mental collapse is visceral

Winner of the Judges Award in the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, Kendall Feaver’s first professionally produced play is utterly stunning. Director Katy Rudd has taken Feaver’s brilliant text and brings it to the stage with an intensity that is sometimes difficult to bear, but lightened with broad strokes of humour and humanity.

Norah Lopez Holden embodies the complex character of Anna perfectly. Her mental collapse, performed on stage, is visceral: her exhaustion, frustration, anger and pain all fly off the stage. But she does so much more than that. She swings delightfully through Anna’s mind, revealing the creative highs and the joy Anna feels as she senses that a full life beyond her illness is possible. Holden also ensures that Anna never comes across as a victim. She’s smart, defiant and at times downright nasty and manipulative, in her desperate bid to be heard, understood and loved.

Mike Noble as Oliver, the lad who Anna is on the verge of forming a relationship with, is also impressive. He provides much of the comic relief in the first act, as an awkward teenager navigating the treacherous territory between his new girlfriend and her mother. And then, in the second act, following a terrifying eruption from Anna, he brings out something more delicate and nuanced. Having cared for his ailing father for years, Oliver is faced with the dilemma of whether he should, just as he too is entering adulthood, risk taking on the role of caring for Anna in the future.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Anna’s psychiatrist Vivienne and Julie Hesmondhalgh as her mother Renee deliver solid performances as the twin pillars of adult stability and care between which Anna rages. Each has played an important part in getting Anna to where she is now, but now both are faced with questions about how responsible they are for the place Anna finds herself in as she tries to come off the medication she has been on since she was diagnosed.

What’s played out is a fight for agency over Anna’s mind and body. Has the medication that Anna has been on all these years been setting her up for an even bigger fall when she tries to come off it? Whose responsibility is Anna’s welfare as she slips from child to adult mental health services?

There are no easy answers to any of the sometimes uncomfortable questions in this slice of human experience that entertains, electrifies and moves. If you see one play this year make it this one.

The Almighty Sometimes is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 24 February

Photo: Manuel Harlan

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