The primary plot-line to Grey Matters is slow to start (despite strong acting and singing from James White as Leo in particular), and was not hugely well developed until the final confrontation (by which point I felt Milena Messner as Beth was more convincing), but the plot is not the most important part of this production. Instead, the most essential and powerful aspect is the use of material gained in interviews to present a varied and nuanced look at mental health issues, backed up by superb acting throughout.
Two of the set pieces on display at the ‘soiree’ in the second act are particularly stunning: cinematographer Violet Aporia (played by Lizzy Hunt) introduces a film on being bipolar, in which Ellen Robertson shines and which makes fantastic use of the cinematic possibilities to add elements of sound, nature, motion and stillness which could not otherwise be introduced; and Mary and Jennifer (Justina Kehinde and Jess Murray respectively) deliver a powerful and extremely well-written joint poem on schizoaffective disorder. Each piece (and each actor) is independently exceptional, and only strengthened by the surrounding production.
Between these pieces in the second act, the audience were given the chance to interact with and find out more about members of the cast (each of whom had a very independent character), a particular strong element making full use of the possibilities of immersive theatre. Conrad Jefferies’ very intense performance as Melvyn particularly stood out for me, and this was in part due to his skill in drawing me into conversation – thereby obviating the twin risks of the difficulty in distinguishing the cast from the audience, and of audience members unsure of how to get the most out of their interactions.
The final act, as with the first, also slow to start. Time was given for the audience members to read the testimonies printed and pasted to the walls, but the low lighting and cramped conditions made this difficult. However, when Tam (Helena Eccles) and Kay (Ifeyinwa Frederick) entered and began discussing experiences of eating disorders, the lighting was able to draw out the intensity of their speeches, and their voices were emotive and varied enough that their faces and actions didn’t always need to be seen.
Grey Matters requires much more from its audience than a traditional piece of theatre, but it also gives plenty in return. If you go into this production – and I urge you to try to get a ticket, although there’s quite a limited batch – knowing what to expect, and willing to get the most out of it, it will leave you reconsidering all you thought you knew about mental health.
Grey Matters is playing in King's College (starting in the Chetwynd Room) with three performances each night, 22-24 February.
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