Revolutions per minute: Stories Like These & Griffin Independent’s Music

Music, produced by Stories Like These and playing at Griffin Theatre, is a “sharp critique of the way mental illness is perceived today,” and digs deeper to fathom the “consequences of raiding people’s personal lives in the name of art.” Written by Jane Bodie, it is the story of two actors (Sarah and Gavin) who befriend a seemingly innocuous young man (Adam) in the name of research for an upcoming play, unaware of the minefield and eggshells they are walking on with every step. Like Stories Like These’s last production seen at Griffin – 2013’s Rust and Bone, also directed by Corey McMahon – there is a robust sense of craft to both the writing and the production, and it is an intense and riveting uninterrupted one-hundred mintues.

Designed by Pip Runciman, we are in Adam’s little flat as much as inside his head perhaps – there’s a kitchenette, lounge, table, and numerous piles of opened envelopes, junk mail, and cassette tapes. Set atop a shrunken shard of Griffin’s shard-like stage, Runciman’s set focuses Bodie’s script and McMahon’s direction like a lens, intensifying it, allowing us to see only too clearly the ballooning impact Sarah and Gavin are having on Adam’s life and fragile well-being. Lit with simplicity, warmth and a healthy dose of rhythm and musicality by Verity Hampson and Benjamin Brockman, and with a gently evocative score by Nate Edmondson, McMahon’s direction is considered, subtle and nuanced, and doesn’t impose upon the production; rather, trusting Bodie’s words and the actors’ skill, it almost seems as if he’s set the parameters and let them get on with it – it evolves as it unfolds, from awkwardness through tenderness to despair as the house of cards comes crashing down around them all.
Written out of having lived with someone who has suffered mental illness, Bodie’s script doesn’t grandstand, nor does it try and vilify anyone: true, it negotiates the fragile, complex and sometimes hazardous tightrope that is the depiction and perception of mental illness with skill, courage, respect and authenticity, but it never feels like it’s forcing anything or itself on us. Music is as much about understanding what it is to suffer, as it is about misunderstanding, and it is exactly what we’ve come to expect from her writing – it’s all too human, in that it’s smart, funny, painful, beautiful. There’s a tenderness, a reaching out, in this play, but also a fierce isolation. As seen recently in Hilt, Bodie has a fascination with intimacy and honesty, and there’s a bit of that claustrophobic sense of suffocation too, as well as her emotional rawness. Like every one of her other plays, it too is gruelling, but there is a light at its end which could seem glib in other hands.
The cast are all fantastic. Anthony Gee’s portrayal of Adam is eloquent and nuanced, full of effervescent and dread in turn; we share Adam’s highs and dread the inevitable crash we know is coming, yet it never feels like he’s asking us for sympathy or trying to wring it out of us. Tom Stokes’ Gavin is at first awkward and eager, but the eagerness soon gives way to a hunger and an evasiveness, an abuse of trust; Kate Skinner’s Sarah is apologetic, reaches out in ways Gavin never will be able to, yet in their own ways tey both come to rely on Adam, to differing degrees and for different reasons: Gavin ‘needs’ Adam for the role, whereas Sarah has an emotional/romantic connection, both with their own destructive forces. Sam O’Sullivan’s Tom is Adam’s old friend and knows him best, watches out for him, but even he is unable to prevent the full extent of the crash when it happens. Each performance never feels forced or false; no moment feels lost or wasted or overplayed. It feels real, intoxicatingly so, and that is perhaps the highest compliment I can give any director or cast.
While it took me a scene or so to find the groove in Bodie’s play, it is by no means a bad thing. Like any good album or record, it takes a while to get up to speed, but once it’s there, it hits its stride (or finds its rhythm, to continue the musical motif) and features a soundtrack of post-punk and dark pop songs that perfectly capture the mood of Adam’s life speeding out from under his fingers. A brave and courageous play, it has the potential to start and facilitate a wider conversation about mental illness and its sufferers, to help us to come to understand it and them with more compassion.

Theatre playlist: 19. This Charming Man, The Smiths

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