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Not talking is killing us

Two fringe theatre shows are tackling mental health issues from opposed perspectives

The noticeable rise in new writing that is addressing issues of mental health is perhaps unsurprising: This in one of the predominant issues of modern life with the Guardian reporting 270 deaths of mental health patients over the last six years. Suicide rates among men are catastrophic, teenagers suffer the fatal consequences of cyber bullying, mental health services are underfunded and overstretched and all the while demand is rising. The way we lead our lives now is taking its toll with diagnoses of anxiety, depression, autism and plain old loneliness or lack of meaningful human contact rising towards numbers that doctors call an epidemic.

Theatre has always been a medium to explore the underlying currents that prompt waves of societal change and development. Fringe theatre, where new writers can experiment and take risks with new material and new ways of storytelling, is at the forefront of tackling the really important and painful issues of our time.
Two shows that are currently playing in London theatres are standing out for the way they handle mental health in ways that are very similar, in terms of structure and approach, but very different in terms of perspective: Ballistic, written by Alex Packer and performed by Mark Conway, showing at the King’s Head Theatre, is a play about a young man growing up to be a school shooter. Based on the real life story of Elliot Rodger, who killed 6 people in Isla Vista, California in 2014, the play explores the pressure young men feel growing up with an ideal of toxic masculinity, navigating a double life around a virtual online worlds and increasingly withdrawing from real human relationships.

Dust, written and performed by Milly Thomas, and currently playing at Soho Theatre, tells the story of a young woman whose disillusionment with life leads her to commit suicide. Caught in a place of limbo between life and death, she is then forced to witness the aftermath of her decision, the effect her action has on friends and family, realising that death was neither the dramatic gesture nor the easy way out that she imagined. There are differences in perspective between the male focused narrative and the female-centric play, but also glaringly obvious similarities that are fascinating to explore.
Mark Conway in Ballistic, Photo: Tom Packer

Both shows had successful Fringe runs in Edinburgh last year before transferring to London and both plays are one–person shows, an economic way to create theatre that needs minimal staging and budget and is easy to tour, but simultaneously requires very tight writing and relies on hugely talented and compelling actors. Both Milly Thomas and Mark Conway excel with intense, arresting one hour long performances, playing multiple characters and creating a storyline out of nothing but words in an essentially dark and bare space. And both shows, despite their dark subject matter and some truly harrowing scenes, use comedy as a tool to create an instant intimate relationship with the audience. The unnamed character in Ballistic is hugely funny and likeable when we meet him first as a 12-year-old child. There is quite obviously a seed, a tendency towards aggression and misogyny, in his personality but there is innocence, hope, relatability. Yes, he is a selfish, entitled child but certainly not a natural born murderer. Throughout the narrative, we witness various points in his life where his parents, friends or teachers could have handled a situation ever so slightly different, potentially saving more than one life.

Alice, the anti-heroine of Dust, is clever and funny, with a dry deadpan sense of humour but she is also deeply self-obsessed and dangerously nihilistic, with permanent emotional detachment hinting at her history of eating disorders, self-harming and depression. Alice is scrolling through Instagram with the same obsession the character in Ballistic displays for video games and virtual escapism distractions. We may believe, as a society, that women talk about their emotions more and Alice certainly talks, she has a close relationship with her best friend, bordering on sexually intimate, and there is almost constant conversation but she struggles to be honest or open. In one of the most impressive scenes, a montage spanning a whole year lived through snippets of conversations, it is astounding how many times this clearly troubled woman is assuring people she is “fine”. How often we casually great people with a “how are you”, clearly not the least bit interested in what they have to answer.

Milly Thomas in Dust. Photo courtesy of The Other Richard

We may believe as a society, that young men are more occupied with sex than women, but sexuality is a central issue in both plays: Ballistic maybe more obsessed with “scoring” and the pressure to live up to expectations, but Alice is equally hooked on sex, though she almost seems like an observer of her own sex life and quite clearly struggles to conjure up any actual feelings for her disposable boyfriend. Witnessing a loving act of intimacy between her best friend and her partner, dead Alice is almost appalled and alienated. Love is not something she has experienced much in her life. The lack of real intimate relationships, with friends or family members, is palpable in both plays.  The only conversation Alice has with her clearly concerned yet emotionally incapable mother is “Do you want any tea?”

The most painful scene in Ballistic is the young man’s sense of absolute rejection and loneliness when his best friend from childhood, all grown up and concerned with being seen as ‘masculine’, doesn’t hug him but coldly shakes his hand. How often can you see groups of male friends completely at a loss on how to greet each other. One hug could have made all the difference in this story. The final climatic scenes of violence or auto-aggression are agonizing and disturbing to watch. The illusions of a painless, peaceful suicide drifting off to sleep is shattered in Milly Thomas’ very distressing depiction of a gory and not the least bit glamorous or even liberating suicide.  The shooting in Ballistic is effective in portraying the man’s detachment from reality: he imagined his victims breasts exploding with bullets like in a game but the actual, much more unspectacular slow warm trickle of human blood from his first victim almost makes him wretch.
This is gut-wrenching theatre with both shows at their heart begging for a conversation to start on how we can help mental health patients and save lives. They don’t have all the answered but they are adamant to talk, because not talking is killing us.
Ballistic is at the King’s Head Theatre until 17 March. Tickets £20.50
Dust is at Soho Theatre until 17 March. Tickets from £15