And Still I Rise: a psychological portrait by Diogo Duarte

Sometimes words fail me. It’s a difficult thing to admit as a writer, but it’s true. So, for the last few months I’ve been working on a secret visual project with photographer and artist Diogo Duarte. I thought maybe I’d pitch and write an article about it, but I can’t – at least not yet. The circumstances are all wrong, I’m not emotionally ready, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever have quite the right vocabulary to put something so huge and so raw out into the world in quite such a public way. And so, I’m largely going to let the picture speak for itself.

Psychological portraits

Diogo’s work is stunning. His fine art portraits are high-concept, striking, psychological, and often dark, drawing inspiration from mythology and fairy tales, and tackling themes like gender, sexuality, and mental health. I love the creativity and vulnerability of his self-portraits, and I was so intrigued when he first told me about his plans for a psychological portrait service.

That was almost two years ago. In February of this year, I found myself physically, mentally and emotionally broken by a traumatic car crash that I still can’t put into words or really make sense of. With hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have even been thinking about work so soon afterwards but, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook one day, one of Diogo’s posts sparked an idea. That idea resulted in me writing about his work for Broadly – and then chatting to him about a portrait of my own!

Celebration of Self, Diogo Duarte

There’s something about Diogo, which I felt from the first moment I met him, that just makes him so easy to talk to. He’s one of those people who exudes warmth, empathy and sincerity – and, having already asked him to get pretty vulnerable when I interviewed him, I felt totally at ease opening myself up in return. Diogo’s background in mental health is really invaluable here too – he both works and volunteers for the Samaritans, so he’s absolutely nailed his probing but supportive approach that really delves into your psyche.

The emotional and creative process

It was April when we had our first proper conversation about the portrait. I was still in a neck brace, still too anxious to use public transport on my own, and still on a seemingly endless waiting list for NHS talking therapy. Diogo came over, sat on the bed with me and the cats, and we talked about everything. And I mean ev-er-y-thing: Memories, and blanks. Nightmares, fears, hopes, and dreams. Shame, guilt, anxiety, despair, confusion, grief, pain. The past, present and future. Things that are public knowledge, and things that I’ll probably take to my grave. It felt like the therapy that I so desperately needed at that point.

And then, for several months, I continued on my journey while he let his imagination get to work on creating the concept for my photo. A lot happened in the time that passed between April and August. We continued talking, sharing thoughts, feelings, symbols and ideas, while Diogo sketched, researched, and gradually pulled together his vision.

By August I was most of the way through therapy, and starting to really feel like I was getting somewhere with it. Everyday life felt less of a struggle, and I’d resigned myself to maybe never having all the answers, instead of endlessly fighting myself and everyone else. We shot the photo in Bourne Wood, near Farnham in Surrey, and Recom Farmhouse created the CGI concrete monolith – Diogo’s symbol of that hard, brutal intrusion into the landscape of my life, that I’ve had to learn to live with rather than futilely punching at with my fists.

And Still I Rise, by Diogo Duarte

Finding meaning

There’s a dark weariness and isolation in the photo. I’m exhausted, despairing, and covered in mud, but I’m hopeful. I’m learning to let go, to comfort myself, and to let the moss take root. And I’m held by the starry universe of the ground below me, seeking for a place of safety and comfort. I can’t look towards the future just yet, but it’s out there, beyond the wall.

There are so many elements of the photo that mean really personal things to me, but what I love too is how those around me see it – and particularly what Diogo has to say:

For Sarah’s portrait, I was interested in capturing a state of mind rather than a specific point in time. It’s not about the past, the present, or the future. In a way it encapsulates all three, depending on the way you look at it, but to me it became important to create a photo that referenced various points in time of her journey. When I look at it, I see an incredibly beautiful woman who is learning to trust that the ground underneath her will hold her, despite changes to her personal landscape. It’s so easy for all of us to forget about trust; trust in ourselves, trust in other people and the environment that surrounds us. The first time I saw Sarah, I really felt her pain and could see doubt was very much present in her mind, so I knew I wanted to incorporate this in the portrait.

One of my best friends said the photo feels dark and lonely, and I guess I’ve felt a lot like that in recent months – though not for a lack of loving people around me. My husband says it has a Stranger Things feel for him, as if I’m in my own personal Upside Down – disconnected, parallel to the real world but not currently quite part of it.

To me it feels like a kind of acceptance of everything that has happened. It is what it is. For better or worse, I survived – albeit with plenty of metaphorical dirt under my fingernails and twigs in my hair. In many ways, it’s an emotional snapshot of everything that’s slowly begun falling into place for me recently. That it’s okay to grieve and to struggle. That it’s not weak to need to rest, heal and recover before embarking on the dark, wild forest of whatever lays ahead. That I am who I am, regardless of the changes to my landscape.

Self-indulgence

Maybe it’s all just been ridiculously self-indulgent, I panicked as we made our way back towards London. But then maybe all therapy, and self-care, and transformative journeys of self-compassion and self-acceptance are self-indulgent. Maybe, when it comes to our own mental health and personal growth, we’re not nearly self-indulgent enough. Maybe we all need to take a step back and reframe our own situations. To take them out of our own heads, where they drive us slowly mad, and quite literally see them through someone else’s lens.

I see new things every time I look at Diogo’s portrait of me. I know its meaning and significance will change and grow as I change and grow. It will always be a reminder of deep, deep darkness, as well as strength, resilience and hope. But I can’t thank Diogo enough for stepping in when words failed me.

Find out more about Diogo Duarte’s fine art photography, including his psychological portrait service, PhotoBard, at: www.diogo-duarte.com

App review: Hey! VINA

Hey! Vina app

Hey! Vina appIt’s been ages since I last wrote a review, but Hey! VINA is an app I’ve actually used, and appreciated, a lot in the last few months. This week the developers celebrated their 6-month app store anniversary – although it took a couple of months after its initial launch before it came to London – so I thought it deserved a little recognition for the lovely new friends it’s brought into my life so far.

Firstly, I have to say, the name makes me cringe. Apparently a ‘vina’ is a girlfriend with whom you drink wine, but it’s probably just a little bit too cheesy and American to sound anything but awkward in a British context. Instead, I’ve taken to referring to it as ‘Friend Tinder’ – because that’s exactly what it is. Vina is an all-female, location-specific app for meeting other, like-minded women for friendships; since launching, Vina boasts that it’s matched 110,000 ‘vinas’ in 600 different cities.

I’ve now lived in London for four years, and spent a huge amount of that time wondering how on earth adults actually make friends outside of work – particularly somewhere as busy as London. I’ve also, having been in a relationship with the same person since before either of us had smart phones, felt increasingly intrigued by the whole foreign world of Tinder and dating apps – and, as a result, spent a lot of time living vicariously by pinching my friends’ phones in the pub and trying to find them the perfect match! So I was really excited when I heard that someone had come up with this, and downloaded the app pretty much straight away.

I spent a couple of months on the waiting list before Vina launched in London, and then got straight on with filling out my profile, and responding to the 6-question profile quiz, which covers all the key information you need from a prospective friend (wine/coffee/both; live to work/work to live/a balancing act; daytime/nighttime/both; introvert/ambivert/extravert; indoors/outside/both; have a plan/be spontaneous/depends).

The Tinder model is perhaps a slightly strange one for choosing new friends – in the sense that I’m not looking for the women with the most attractive profile photo! – so I always click through to each woman’s profile to find out more about her, rather than immediately swiping right or left. Despite that, it’s been a really simple and fun way to meet like-minded women who fit what I need out of my friendships right now – friendly, feminist, professional, maybe slightly introverted, and at a similar stage of ‘settled down-ness’. So far it’s produced three such women, who I’ve enjoyed meeting for brunch, lunch and cocktails – and I’m looking forward to seeing how Vina develops, with more quizzes promised ‘soon’ and a brand new blog section recently launched within the app.

Hey! VINA
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Summary

A great concept – I can’t believe no one had come up with it before! Vina has a really nice, clean-looking design, and all the features you’d want from a friend-finding app. The mechanics of the app itself can be a bit buggy at times (crashing mid-reply, or showing me the same person twice), so I’ve typically moved conversations onto Whatsapp or iMessage quite quickly once I’ve decided someone has friend potential. But otherwise a really clever, useful piece of tech for busy city women in need of a bit more girl-time.

Click to download ‘Hey! VINA’ from the Apple iOS app store.

Review: Fake It ’til You Make It

487e65cb-392b-45f0-a595-185372d3d943-620x372Last month I interviewed performance artist Bryony Kimmings for The Debrief, about what to do when your boyfriend has depression. She and her own (non-performer) boyfriend, Tim Grayburn, have spent the last eight months touring a collaborative show based on just that: their experiences, as a couple, of Tim’s depression.

Following huge acclaim in Australia, last week the couple performed a run of Edinburgh festival previews at London’s Southbank Centre, with Thursday’s performance featuring a post-show discussion with Shân Maclennan, Deputy Artistic Director of Southbank Centre; Rachel Clare, Communications Director of CALM; Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind; consultant psychiatrist Dr Jim Bolton; as well as Bryony and Tim.

The show itself is phenomenally brave, moving and powerful; heart-wrenching yet entertaining, deeply personal yet enormously relatable. From dancing around the stage in their underwear, to revealing the depths of Tim’s despair through snippets of a raw, intimate conversation the couple recorded in their living room, the show beautifully achieves what Bryony promises in its opening: a surreal and poignant blend of light and dark, vividly expressing the experiences of depression and anxiety, and exploring the impact of gender roles on the way men and women talk (or don’t talk) about our feelings.

One of the most powerful techniques, which was referred to repeatedly during the post-show discussion, initially grew out of Tim’s desire not to have to look the audience in the eye. Throughout the performance he appears with his face obscured by masks, goggles, clouds, and other props – at one time a lethargic, emotionless shell in a paper bag; at another, a frantic, panic-stricken animal, wild with fear and confusion. This makes his closing speech to the audience, with his face finally revealed and a very genuine shakiness in his voice, all the more powerful and touching. He moves from this moment of raw honesty to another dance, as he and Bryony hold up signs naming the symptoms of depression while dancing a samba, before closing with a song he wrote for her – and not a single dry eye in the house, least of all Bryony’s.

It is, as Bryony says early on, a love story (“sorry, gross!”) – but one that’s as human and real and beautiful as they get – and perhaps made all the more significant by the fact they conceived their son during the Australian leg of the tour, who appears on stage, in utero, alongside them. Tim kept his mental illness a secret from virtually everyone in his life for eight years, and clearly credits the love and support of “the one” with helping him to seek support, reduce his dosage of anti-depressants, and finally open up to his friends and family – something he says was actually a catalyst for several of his friends to do the same.

Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly bold move to go from total secrecy to playing out your darkest moments on stage in front of thousands of people (especially in your pants!) The shame and sense of failure that he describes feeling about his depression are undoubtedly feelings that many men can relate to, and Tim’s desire to help other men like himself is an incredibly inspiring part of the driving force behind the show.

In the post-show discussion, the issue of engaging men to talk about their mental health was naturally a clear focus, with Stephen and Rachel in particular discussing techniques for reaching out to men in their own terms – approaching conversations about mental health through observations (“I’ve noticed you seem down lately”, “you haven’t seen your friends for a while”), and engaging with men at gigs and football matches, or through men’s interest magazines.

Another key issue was around the support actually available for men when they do reach out – with both Mind and CALM saying that whenever they expand the capacity of their services, there are always more than enough people to fill them. Mind’s Stephen Buckley called on the audience to help the charity hold the government to account for its election promises to improve funding, while CALM’s Rachel Clare suggested we “can’t rely on this government” to adequately fund mental health care.

Despite the obvious political failings that have long existed within the sector, consultant psychiatrist Dr Jim Bolton sounded a more optimistic note, highlighting the huge improvements that have been made in tackling stigma in rent years. While there is obviously still a very long way to go, Fake It ’til You Make It fills a really important hole in that conversation.

Fake It ’till You Make It is on at Latitude Festival tomorrow, Sunday 19 July, before moving on to Edinburgh Festival. Find out more at bryonyandtim.com

For more information and support on men’s mental health, visit CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) or Mind, read my previous work on men’s mental health, or check out Bryony’s advice on supporting your boyfriend.

Review: ‘The What The Frock! Book of Funny Women’ by Jane Duffus

WTFrockWhat The Frock! is one of just three all-female comedy nights held in the UK. Based in Bristol, WTF! was founded in 2012 to prove a point about the abundance of funny women (and the abundance of people eager to see them perform), and recently celebrated its third birthday.

Despite its relative infancy, WTF! is a seriously passionate, ambitious brand, committed to promoting women in comedy. After just three years, WTF! has already expanded beyond Bristol, hosting shows in nearby Bath, appearing as part of the Women In Comedy Festival in Manchester, and even putting on a show at the Southbank Centre’s iconic three-day Women of the World Festival. The WTF! Newcomer Award is now in its third year, and WTF! has been featured by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, as well as ITV, and BBC TV and radio.

So, obviously, a book was the next natural step.

I should confess at this point that Jane Duffus, the woman who single handedly runs What The Frock! and the author of this book, has been a friend since we met through feminist circles on Twitter back in 2010. I’ve been a WTF! supporter and (occasional) audience member ever since she founded it, as well as doing odd bits of content writing and social media management for the brand. So I write this not without bias, as someone who really loves and believes in what Jane is doing for women’s comedy in the UK (and who has the tote bag, car sticker, badges, fridge magnets, bookmark, but not yet the T-shirt, to prove it!)

The The What The Frock! Book of Funny Women is a relatively skinny book, smaller than I’d expected, but it packs a punch. Jane writes on the assumption that her reader already knows women are funny – there’s no time wasted on debating ‘are they or aren’t they?’ because this book is all about letting the funny women’s work speak for itself. After briefly running through the histories both of women in comedy and the WTF! brand, Jane gets straight to the women.

With a little help from contributors including Viv Groskop, James Mullinger and Kate Smurthwaite, Jane profiles a diverse array of funny women from the last century-and-a-bit, curating their achievements and career highlights in a way that makes you go ‘god, I really want to spend the rest of the day watching French and Saunders on YouTube’. Not brilliant for your afternoon productivity if you happen to be reading it during your lunch break (as I was), but great inspiration if you’re in need of a laugh and bored of the same old men on Mock The Week.

The book’s aim is to celebrate the funniest women ever to have made us laugh, and features 71 funny women in total, in what Jane admits is far from a comprehensive list. But with highlights including everyone from novelists Jane Austen and Helen Fielding to US superstars Tina Fey, Ellen Degeneres and Sarah Silverman – with British legends Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and so many more in between – it’s difficult to dispute the fact that Jane has made a pretty impressive start.

Besides the obvious choices, the book also features many women I’d never heard of, including Hollywood icons and music hall stars. It’s not just a perfect antidote with which to silence the tedious ‘women aren’t funny’ brigade, but also a great resource for discovering women of comedy history and lesser known funny women of today.

It’s probably not a book to read all in one go, so save something else for the beach, but the bite size chunks celebrating each of the 71 women make it ideal for dipping in and out of – you’ll be binge watching Dinner Ladies and Ab Fab in between anyway, or buying tickets for Sarah Millican’s next tour.

You can buy the What The Frock! Book of Funny Women here.

Review: ‘Walking on Custard & The Meaning of Life’ by Neil Hughes

cover-preview-front-onlyI’m fascinated by psychology, mental health and self-improvement, but I’ve always felt slightly ambivalent about self-help books – with my attitude generally falling somewhere between intrigued and cynical.

When Neil Hughes first contacted me about his book, he managed to appeal to the former and, as I read  Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life: A Guide for Anxious HumansI realised his writing is informed by a similar self-help cynicism to my own. The result is something endearingly down to earth: Walking on Custard is a self-help book for people who don’t really like self-help books.

Walking on Custard draws deeply on Neil’s life and personality: his experiences of anxiety and self-doubt, his many adventures and misadventures, his cheeky sense of humour, and his loves of physics and sci-fi – and yet, despite this, manages to avoid becoming a book about Neil Hughes.

Hughes’ Guide for Anxious Humans blends accessible physics analogies (including the eponymous non-newtonian custard) with silly fiction, entertaining anecdotes, witty footnotes, thoughtful exercises, shedloads of humour, and an enormous amount of wisdom. All this is peppered throughout by the self-deprecating voices in Neil’s heads, most notably his inner critic, who is both intensely irritating and completely relatable.

(Neil, I have to admit at this point that my own inner critic has been giving me an awful lot of grief about how long it’s taken me to read and review your book – sorry!)

Hughes’ down to earth, sometimes silly, humour and self-deprecation make him an ideal guide through the journey Walking on Custard takes you on; approachable, honest, empathic and human. This isn’t a self-help book written by a self-proclaimed expert, and that’s actually a big part of its strength. It’s well-informed, well-researched (including a ‘Further reading for anyone interested’ section) but it’s also written from the heart, by someone with first-hand experience of everything he describes.

As a guide for anxious humans, Walking on Custard covers a lot of ground – from the big, existential issues like death and the meaning of life, to the more everyday challenges like self-awareness and personal ‘monkeys’, relationships with others, and plenty more besides. At times it’s a bit ‘blokey’, but so many of his experiences and insights struck a chord with me, and it’s clearly a book that has a lot to offer anxious humans everywhere. It’s inspiring without being over-ambitious; challenging without being preachy; insightful without making you cringe (too much!); and funny without being dismissive.

In short, Hughes manages to achieve what many self-help books lack: warmth, humour, and relatablity, but without compromising on wisdom, insight, and practical, useful advice. If nothing else, it’s helped me picture my own anxiety as a giant swimming pool full of custard – and it’s remarkable how much that loosens its hold on you.

Click here to buy  Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life: A Guide for Anxious Humans

Musical machinations – A review of Made In Dagenham: The Musical

Originally published at The F Word.

The cast of Made In Dagenham Photo by Manuel HarlanAs the name suggests, Made In Dagenham: The Musical is the latest retelling of the story of the fight for equal pay by an amazing group of women machinists from the Ford factory in Dagenham, in musical theatre form.

Much like the 2010 film, Made In Dagenham: The Musical is a feel-good, comic portrayal of the 1968 machinists’ strike, which succeeds in making you laugh and cry in equal measures.

Gemma Arterton plays the lead role of Rita O’Grady, a working-class Essex woman who works on the sewing machines producing car seats. Her husband, also employed by the Ford factory, is a typical 1960s ‘man’s man’ who does nothing round the house, while Rita takes on the roles of housewife, working mother and all-round “busy woman”, as she sings in the musical’s opening song.

Though adamantly “not political”, Rita is sufficiently enraged when the women’s work is downgraded from skilled to unskilled that she accidentally finds herself (alongside the women’s union convener Connie) leading a ground-breaking walk-out to demand not only the recognition of their skilled labour, but to be paid equally to men doing equivalent work, taking on Ford’s management, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the government in the process.

The production itself is unashamedly and upliftingly feminist, with the women of the cast wonderfully portraying the group of no-nonsense, working class strikers, fighting their fight with humour and passion aplenty. With a drive and determination much like the tenacious E15 mums, who are today campaigning for social housing in post-Olympic east London, Rita and the machinists are prepared to take their fight all the way to the top and unprepared to settle for anything less than the right to equal pay.

With the men forced to take on domestic responsibilities for the first time in their lives, Arterton heartbreakingly demonstrates Rita’s struggle as a mother trying to be there for her family, while fighting to build a better future for her daughter. It’s a familiar problem that, even today, women are so often expected to put their battles for equality to one side and put their domestic responsibilities first.

Equally familiar, Isla Blair, as childless Connie, captures all the frustration and disappointment of a lifetime spent fighting to change the world and being told by the men of the left that women must wait their turn. Neither the Labour party nor the TUC is let off the hook in this regard, with Sophie-Louise Dann’s formidable Barbara Castle also bemoaning the slowness of change and the need to first win over the men.

However, while the women are real and passionate and beautiful and human, the men representing their patriarchal opponents are far more two-dimensional, played as old-school casual sexists and pantomime clowns. The union bosses, Ford management and Prime Minister Harold Wilson are as bumbling and incompetent as each other. Alternatively, in the case of the cowboy from Ford’s US headquarters, they are pantomime villains: the evil capitalists the audience loves to hate.

These caricatures, pitted against the competent, wilful and articulate women, were amusing at first but quite quickly wore thin. When members of the audience began booing and hissing the villainous American Ford boss, I couldn’t help but feel that the rigid role of male power had been grossly over-simplified. As in any classic pantomime battle between good and evil, the women’s ultimate victory over patriarchal forces almost seemed inevitable rather than hard-won, which was a real shame.

Nevertheless, Made In Dagenham: The Musical was a genuinely moving, entertaining production and I cried all the way from the picket line to the TUC conference, where equal pay is finally adopted as TUC policy and Rita is reunited with proud husband Eddie.

The women’s victory was greeted with a mix of whoops and tears from the audience, as the triumphant closing song declared “Now we’re equal paid in Dagenham”, and a voiceover paid tribute to the striking machinists, likening their struggle to the suffragettes’ fight for women’s right to vote and demanding they be remembered and celebrated by the history books.

As is the nature of musical theatre, Made In Dagenham closed on an uncompromising high, with the machinists’ equal pay victory portrayed as an unqualified success.

It was somewhat unsettling to watch knowing that, just a week before the performance, it was reported that supermarket giant Asda is facing mass legal action from female employees who claim they are paid less than men for equivalent work. Equal pay may be enshrined in law but, nearly 50 years later, it remains far from a reality for many women.

Despite this, I came away feeling quite emotional. It’s not often you see a piece of theatre not only dedicated to women’s stories but that reminds you of the incredible courage and tenacity of women’s activism that makes change really possible, however slow.

Made in Dagenham: The Musical is showing at the Adelphi Theatre in London until 28 March.

Interview: Rachel Parris

Originally published at What The Frock! comedy.

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Rachel Parris occupies a unique position in the comedy world: straddling the sparsely populated border between musical comedy and Jane Austen improvisation.

An actor, comedian, musician and improviser, Rachel has an intriguingly diverse repertoire with a CV that includes co-presenting Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones fan show Thronecast, as well as an appearance on Channel 4’s The IT Crowd, and a stint in the critically acclaimed “epic disaster parody play”Death Ship 666.

It’s no surprise then that her comedy inspirations are just as diverse: “My influences vary from multi-talented comedians like Victoria Wood to Bill Finn – an American musical theatre writer who does these heartbreakingly funny and moving songs, all part of a narrative, but always flawless comic writing.”

I’ve caught Rachel fresh from a month in Edinburgh, where she’s been treating Fringe-goers to her latest solo stand-up show Live In Vegas, but her comedy beginnings are rooted in the world of improvisation. “I joined the Oxford Imps, a short-form group, and then a long-form London improv show called Scenes From Communal Living, with a young Rob Broderick, Carly Smallman, Robin & Partridge and Gemma Whelan, among others.”

Out of this love of improvisation came the award-winning Austentatious, a Jane Austen themed improvised comedy show co-founded by Rachel. “We had all been doing a variety of different kinds of improv for quite a few years,” Rachel explains. “We knew we wanted to do something long form that was historical, would be fun to do and get an audience. Austen seemed perfect: we all really liked her work and she suits improv really well – lots of dialogue and very witty.”

And it’s not just for fans of Mr Darcy’s creator. “You don’t have to even really know about Jane Austen to enjoy the show,” Rachel says. “We throw a few Easter eggs in for those who are big fans, but [it’s] more comedy than anything else – as Paul Fleckney said in a review, it’s ‘more Blackadder than BBC4’.”

Her experiences of improv gave Rachel “the idea that [she] could be funny on stage, and the balls to do [her] first comedy gig.” Her solo work, though, she says is “completely different”, so What The Frock! fans shouldn’t come expecting a comedy rendition of Mansfield Park. “My solo stuff is more connected to the modern world – and my life, inevitably,” with previous themes including television, advertising, friends getting married, children, pop stars, Disney and turning 30.

“I usually do stand-up with comedy songs in between, although this year I’ve started doing character comedy. So I suppose at the moment it’s musical-character-comedy… niche!” Rachel explains.

Her debut solo show, The Commission, sold out at 2013’s Edinburgh Fringe and received a host of four and five star reviews. Live In Vegas has proved another hit at this year’s Fringe and is all set for a mini tour in the Autumn. In it, as the title suggests, Rachel explores the world of Las Vegas: “Part of the show is taking the mick out of the commercialism, the corruption and the fake smiles, that side of the industry,” she says. “But I convey it through the power of song!”

Review: Close To You

Originally published at Feminist Times.

Close-To-You-624x416“People don’t really choose one day to wake up and get an ‘eating disorder’ the way you would a new pair of jeans or shoes. It is something that becomes your only friend, consuming you and filling all the empty spaces inside you – the places that are hungry for success, for worth, for beauty, for acceptance.”

Jennie Eggleton’s one-woman performance Close To You is one of the most moving, visceral pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time; I came away feeling somewhere between ravenous and nauseous, and, on an emotional level, profoundly affected by her vivid portrayal of life with anorexia.

Based on a mixture of research and Eggleton’s own lived experiences, the piece follows self-critical aspiring actor and singer Jennifer (who, Jennie says, “is me, but isn’t me”), as she frantically searches for her big break into show business and, in the process, descends further and further into her eating disorder.

Throughout, Jennifer’s story is interwoven with the story of her idol, The Carpenters’ Karen Carpenter – the 70s pop star who famously struggled with the illness under the glare of the public eye. As Eggleton flits between her own story and Karen’s, accompanied by live piano performances of The Carpenters’ classic hits, the parallels are increasingly evident.

The character, Jennifer, not only imagines Karen’s story as a glamourised version of her own but also uses it as an alibi to cling to the disorder that’s literally consuming her. As she sashays across the stage, pulling on the glamorous garbs of her imagined idol, the line between Jennifer and Karen blurs; a glimpse at Karen’s final, tragic fate hints at what also lays in store for Jennifer unless she recovers.

Closetoyou

Eggleton, who both wrote and performs Close To You, truly is the mistress of her own semi-autobiographical show, playing more than half a dozen different characters, each infused with humour, and shifting effortlessly between them, even mid-conversation: the concerned mother, the patronising and unhelpful therapist, the friend who comes bearing temptation in the form of a goats cheese and tomato quiche.

The physicality of Eggleton’s performances is not limited to swapping characters; one of the most harrowing scenes sees a distraught Jennifer scraping the much-coveted quiche from her mouth in disgust and throwing herself into a repentant routine of exercise; throughout the play, her movements are as erratic as the thoughts behind them.

Jennifer’s obsessive monitoring of her own behaviour punctuates each scene, serving as a regular reminder of anorexia’s hold on her. She declares her gradually deteriorating weight (“40kg”, “38kg”), as she hops regularly on and off the pair of scales at the front of the stage, along with her diary of food eaten (“seven raisins and half a tin of tuna”). The urgency of her desire for, and self-denial of, first the quiche, and later the chocolate brownie, disturbingly reveal the all-consuming nature of her disorder.

Visually, the set bears the same powerful, physical simplicity as Eggleton’s performance. A bed takes centre stage, flanked by two mirrors and painfully thin mannequins are dotted around the stage, draped with the various layers of clothes under which Jennifer both conceals her body and transports herself to the 1970s world of the Carpenters.

In the post-show discussion, Eggleton and director Anna Simpson spoke of their plans to take Close To You into girls schools, as an education and awareness-raising tool. Though disturbing in parts, the performance is certainly eye opening. Jennifer’s turning point, following bouts of fainting, chest pains, hospitalisation and ultimately the death of a fellow-patient, who she has named Karen after her idol, is a stark illustration of the realities of anorexia nervosa – an illness which, after all, has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

For Eggleton – who suffered from anorexia from around the age of 15 and is now, at 23, in recovery – the piece is a way to use her love of theatre to highlight the complexities of an issue that is simultaneously so prevalent in the arts and yet so rarely addressed through performance.

Having already performed Close To You to audiences of both theatre-goers and medical professionals, Eggleton and director Simpson hope the piece will also have a positive impact on young women’s relationships with their bodies.

Close To You’s run at Southwark Playhouse has now finished but you can catch it at the Brighton Fringe Festival on 17th and 18th May, 2pm, at the Warren Main House. For updates, follow @Close__To__You.

For advice and support on dealing with eating disorders, see: http://www.b-eat.co.uk and http://www.mind.org.uk