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Rachel by Stevie Helps – Z-Arts, Manchester – Review
Photographed: Kathryn Blackburn (Rachel B) and Phil Wilson (Stuart). Photography by Steven McHugh
Rachel, written and directed by London born director Stevie Helps, came to Z-Arts Theatre, Manchester, on Mental Health Awareness Week. Described as a ‘daring and risk taking writer and director’, Helps’ extraordinarily artistic production did not disappoint, with an abundance of visual and lyrical stimulation and raw, truthful storytelling from start to finish. Audiences were unashamedly scooped up and carried forward on the journey of a young girl who struggles to find the help she needs at home, before falling into a spiral of domestic and self abuse. With political undertones, Helps’ writing is mature and highly stylised with plenty of tongue-in-cheek content, leaving audiences amused but enlightened. This was definitely not your typical mental health show.
RACHEL HAS 10,000 HEADS AND A BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER.
Everything in Rachel’s life is crumbling. She has suffered a whirlwind of abuse in her life, but now is the abused becoming the abuser? With a villainous Father and a new lovable love interest, Rachel is vulnerable yet empowered to try and take control and break free of her surrounding prison.
Opening the play was a powerful and heartbreaking monologue from Rachel’s mother, Jane (played by Elaine Hardy). We learn the extent of Jane’s struggles with alcohol and how this has affected her family, including Rachel. Hardy also doubles as the unprofessional and racy Detective who drives the plot forward during several interview scenes. Convincing in both roles, she made us laugh in one and she made us cry in the other.
The lead role of ‘Rachel’ was portrayed fantastically by three different actresses (Hanna Rose, Kathryn Blackburn and Louise Burns) who shared the stage throughout, visually tied together with bright wigs representing the different personalities and worries brought on by her Borderline Personality Disorder. All three actresses played their roles with solid conviction and sensitivity, nailing the intricate visual – somewhat physical theatre – direction and tongue twisting rhymes of Helps, not often seen on the Manchester theatre scene. Never was there a lack of energy or dull moment. A huge congratulations to Rose, Blackburn, Burns and moreover writer/director Helps for a stunning, unique and visually enthralling representation of mental health.
Flipping through the glossy programme I was surprised to discover that the play was the debut performance of several of the actors on stage – most notably Rachel’s father Stuart (played by Phil Wilson), who gave a controlled performance, bravely taking on the twisted role of behind-closed-doors, sickeningly abusive father to perfection. One moment we hated him, the next we understood his struggles, until we cheer on Rachel as she enacts her bloody Revenge in the final show down. Other notable debuts included Brad, played by the vocally captivating Will Murrant, who made the audience chuckle with a fantastic monologue exploring the depth and boundaries of love which included a brilliant Michael Jackson impersonation – a natural talent.
Returning to the production line up was Linda Meacher playing the hilarious and ditzy Waitress Julie and Nurse Susan, where the play takes a political pop at government cuts affecting our health services – as recently seen vastly reported in the media. After the show I heard one lady telling her friend “that happened to me”, when discussing non-voluntary hospital admissions, which was a sad but eye opening moment as I exited amidst the excited and packed audience. This dark and dramatic production harbours beneath it’s often comedic surface an untold depth of brutally honest truths experienced by many.
Sam Burn gave a solid and charming performance as Rachel’s new boyfriend Elliot, who, concealing his own secrets, clearly struggled with his own mental health throughout. With subtle twitches and stammered speech building through the trauma he was exposed to, the end result was a heart wrenching breakdown during the penultimate scene where Elliot is broken beyond repair. Again, well done to Helps for some great directorial choices here. I must give a shout out to the fantastic Sophie Osborne who played both domestically and emotionally abused Sarah, who drowned in what appeared to be a glass of water, and also the highly entertaining and attention seeking neighbour ‘Nosey Rosie’ who I’m sure we all know from personal experience – a warm fuzzy moment following the harrowing scenes just witnessed. Sarah’s abusive boyfriend Andy was played by Phil Wingate who gave a great comedy performance and often had the audience in awkward stitches. Chyaz Samuel portrayed ‘delicate flower’ April with energy and zest, every bit the obsessed fan.
Music was provided throughout by the stunningly beautiful tones of live acoustic singer Lizzie Tupman, who interacted with characters in various places, making her music bond with the production perfectly. Some truly stunning song choices with a tear enduring accapella performance during the miscarriage and beautifully directed funeral transition. There was barely a dry eye in the house.
On the whole, a strong and daring production with all the ups and downs one might expect from a mental health show. Helps has a distinctive Voice and style which, although often going against the grain of expectation, is powerful and melodious. With a little more polishing in places I would have been tempted to rate a full 5 stars.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reviewer – Amy Dootson
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