Content notes: mental illness (incl. anxiety, depression, eating disorders and addiction), mentions of suicide and self-harm.
Rust is a one-hour musical based on the real-life experiences of its writer, Cambridge’s own Helena Fox, and her 2017 stint in a rehab facility.
After rave reviews during its Fringe run (and a not insignificant amount of buzz here in Cambridge!) I went in expecting great things, and I was not disappointed. When I first heard about Rust, way back when in Easter term when it began to fill up the pages of Camdram, I was admittedly hesitant, wondering how a musical could sensitively handle, without sensationalising, the subject material. In a term which has seen the comedy musical Unexpected Item in the Bagging Area, (also from the Fringe), and then as recently as last week with Chicago, Rust, to my mind, had an uphill battle to defend its use of the form; and wow, did it deliver.
Rust is not a musical extravaganza with big set pieces or choreography or group numbers, nor does it have powerhouse songs with which the performers can showcase flawless vocal technique or biology-defying ranges; instead, the music functions as an additional mode of expressing the deep trauma and nuanced emotional impact of mental illness, where dialogue and monologue may have been clunky. The melodies and harmonies were beautiful, but they were self-aware enough never to draw attention to themselves and away from the story, and that is exactly why they were so effective.
Perhaps by nature, Rust is the kind of play to make you both laugh and cry.
Particular highlights include; Lara Cosmetatos as a motherly alcoholic, attempting to get sober for her children, and simultaneously becoming a pseudo-mother to the group in rehab, and Seán O’Neill as Jude, or, more aptly, the drag queen ‘Gina Tonic’ who provided the show’s much-needed comic relief, (along with a song whose main thesis was ‘Meditate on that, bitch’), without trivialising the drag community or Jude’s own queer experience. The strength of this show lies very much in its ensemble cast and their relationships; despite the focus on central character Evie, her experiences were viewed in the light of her communication and honesty with the group and vice versa, meaning no particular character or performer stood out beyond the rest, just as no mental illness or survivor does and would in that context.
Indeed, if there is a criticism that could be made of Rust, it is that at times it felt a little too real. Due to its extremely sensitive subject material, Rust seemed like it was always toeing the line of realism and preferring the gritty truths of cyclical recovery and relapse instead of the classic end-game recovery narrative. This is exactly what I think the writer sets out to do; she lost a member of her own rehab cohort nine months after leaving, and it’s an important reality to note, but it meant that the musical lost some of its transformative potential, and didn’t make for easy viewing, particularly past midnight on a Wednesday.
But it’s precisely because it doesn’t make for easy viewing that stories like Rust need to be told, and, even though it is predominantly a Fringe show, I think Cambridge is one of the most apt places for a performance of this kind. This was patently obvious in the scenes with Vanessa, the facility psychiatrist, played excellently by Paloma van Tol, in which the houselights came up as she broke the fourth wall and monologued, giving one the peculiar sensation of being in therapy.
One of Vanessa’s parting shots was the statistic that in 2030 suicide is expected to be the leading cause of death, but only 6% of our current health budget is spent on mental health services.
In Cambridge, one of the most academically challenging environments in the world, anxiety and impostor syndrome are second nature, and the UCS is consistently lambasted as insufficient to take care of students’ needs. For many, Rust represents the kind of help and recovery they so urgently need, but can only dream of having a shot at.
“When you leave here, everything else will still be the same, the only thing that will have changed, is you.”