Monday, 6 August 2012

Epidemic: a piece of community theatre

It’s a warm Wednesday evening in May (remember those?) and a crowd of us have been seated in the darkness of a tunnel running under Waterloo station. We have gathered to hear a story, relayed to us by a team of nearly two hundred, addressing the public health concerns of the people of Southwark. We are here to see the fruits of eighteen months research and development, brought to us by the Old Vic New Voices; we are here to encounter an Epidemic.

A new musical by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Suzy Davies (produced by Steve Winter and directed by Alex Ferris), Epidemic is a piece of community theatre – a musical, exploring mental health and obesity through the story of Marlon, a young man battling with schizophrenia. Ambitious topics and an ambitious production, Epidemic was designed to tap into the current zeitgeist: the strain of London public health, an unsteady NHS, and over-burdened, under-resourced mental health services. The title and performance also strongly alluded to the ‘epidemic of opinion’ brought to us by new social and news media, particularly how this ties in with our views on mental health and obesity.

The narrative interweaves the stories of Marlon (aka ‘#busnutter’), Iris – an elderly lady suffering from dementia, and Lawrence – an obese American. Panicked by paranoid fears of hospitalisation, Marlon has stolen the mobility bus parked outside his G.P. in which Iris and Lawrence are waiting to be taken to a day centre. What follows is a poignant, at times hilarious, and always affecting tale of hope and fear, community and isolation, stigma and acceptance, as the three embark on a journey to the beaches of Norfolk, to escape the lives and labels that entrap them. Thelma and Louise meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, the production combined music, dance, theatre and mixed media to bring the characters and issues to life in a way that was never didactic and avoided easy answers.

Some of the most memorable lines came from the songs (occasionally a little too jazz-hands for my liking, with a chorus of very pretty young “actoooors”), including a rousing rendition of ‘Bugger the bankers and politicians. Bugger the bureaucrats too. Bugger the buggers who make up the rules, and if you’re one of them bugger you!’ Another favourite was the finale song, ‘Life, in all its complexities’, which, to me, encapsulated the heart of the piece: ‘Life, with all of the highs and the lows, the yeses and noes, the joys and the woes, the maybe I don’t knows. Life, the passion the glory, the strife, if you’re lucky you’ll breeze through easy – chances are you won’t, ‘cos that’s life’. Far more ‘we’re all in this together’ than Cameron and Osbourne will ever be. My only recommendation would be that Old Vic New Voices take this show not only around UK schools, but also to the House of Commons. Although presented theatrically in a world of heightened reality, there was an authenticity to this performance which spoke of real people, real experiences, and real battles with services and stigma. Although a very atmospheric setting, Epidemic – like the characters – should be brought out of the darkness (of the tunnels or of fear and shame) to take the world head on and show it what it’s made of.   
Review: Kate Massey-Chase

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