Blog: Julie Hesmondhalgh

As she gears up for a new play about mental health and medication, the award-winning actor writes about her long history of playing roles tackling current national concerns

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It’s funny how very often when you’re working on a project, be it for telly or theatre, that the subject matter you’re exploring in a new piece of writing suddenly becomes part of a national conversation. It’s like the stars suddenly align and a particular issue is pulled into sharp focus in the national consciousness, however long the project has been in development.

I’ve had numerous examples of this life-art synergy in my career: from Hayley’s coming out as transgender on Corrie back in 1998, just at the moment when trans rights and visibility started to emerge from the shadows, to her controversial right to die storyline in 2013, which aired just at the moment when Lord Falconer was attempting to push the Assisted Dying Bill into legislation.

Similarly, when the third series of Broadchurch was about to air, examining the effects of a violent rape on a woman and her community, it seemed to supernaturally coincide with several other TV examinations of serious sexual assault and prompted a mighty flurry of column inches about the appropriateness of televising rape.

And now I find myself in a rehearsal room at the Royal Exchange Theatre, working on a beautiful piece of new writing, The Almighty Sometimes. The play, by Kendal Feaver, was a Bruntwood Playwriting Competition winner in 2015 and has been in development since, and is about young people and mental illness.

During our rehearsal period there have been many reports about the crisis in the underfunded Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services in the UK, and much emphasis on the seeming epidemic of mental health issues in our young people. And then journalist Johann Hari’s new opus, Lost Connections (Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions) came out and a veritable shit-storm followed: some people hailing it as a vitally important antidote to the culture of medicalisation, others damning it as a deeply irresponsible piece of work that could potentially encourage vulnerable people to flush their much-needed anti-depressants down the toilet, creating a whole new national crisis.

I read the book and loved it. To me it wasn’t so much about damning anti-depressants (he has been on them for many years) as questioning the ways we look at depression by putting it in a social context: asking important questions about broken communities, our increasing disconnection from each other and from nature, the lack of fulfilling work and agency over one’s own life. And vitally, I think, the difference between actual grief or sadness and mental illness, and how we have become in some ways dependent on quick and possibly short-term fixes. It is the beginning of a conversation and it has proved controversial. This subject provokes huge emotional responses in people. Of course it does.

So rehearsing a play exploring some of these issues has been timely but also a bit unnerving for all of us. How to market/talk about/sell tickets for a play about a subject that some might find triggering and some will assume is bleak?

We’re aware that people might come wanting to see their personal experience adequately represented. One of the first interviews I did to publicise the play focused on my propensity to be in plays about dark topics, inadvertently making it sound as though the play was a misery-fest, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is a rich and warm and at times very funny piece of work about a wonderful, creative, imaginative young woman reaching an age when she starts to question her relationship with her illness and her medication.

The almost kitchen-sink setting of the family home and the psychiatrist’s office explodes into Anna’s rich and sometimes disturbing inner world

It is in some ways a play about the micro, in part a coming-of-age story about one young woman’s changing relationships: with her childhood writings, with her drugs, her psychiatrist, her mum (played by me), her boyfriend. It doesn’t attempt to talk about the CAMHS crisis, poverty, social media, etc. But it is also very much a play about the macro: it asks, I think, exciting questions about mental illness and creativity, and how much you might be willing to compromise your art for your wellbeing.

The almost kitchen-sink setting of the family home and the psychiatrist’s office explodes into Anna’s rich and sometimes disturbing inner world, so it’s a deeply theatrical experience too. It is a play that doesn’t come up with any answers but joins the discussion at exactly the right moment. Like all good art, it exists in the frustrating, fascinating foggy area of that conversation.

And it has at its centre a young female protagonist, played with unbelievable depth, fierceness and honesty by Norah Lopez-Holden, who challenges all the social norms: sometimes exasperating, always exhilarating, not always entirely likeable. Maybe this will coincide with a moment in our society when roles like this for young women become not the exception but the norm.

The Almighty Sometimes is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, 9-24 February (0161 833 9833,

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