The words ‘super happy’, ‘musical’ and ‘depression’ don’t instinctively appear to be the most natural of bedfellows, but that hasn’t stopped Jon Brittain and Silent Uproar Productions. Brittain (perhaps best known for the Olivier Award-winning Rotterdam, currently on tour) has written a 65-minute cabaret-style musical that follows Sally as she lives with depression: A Super Happy Story (About Feeling Super Sad). It is touring, and now in the middle of a month-long residency at The Vaults.
On the face of it, Sally seems to be having a great time – sneaking herself into age-restricted venues with fake ID, discovering new bands, and getting ready to change the world. The thing is, the smile on her face is so far from an accurate representation of what’s going on inside her brain, but if anyone asks she says that she’s fine, consistently refusing help and trying to muddle along by herself. From a pre-exam meltdown to “the most depressing job in the world”, join Sally as she slowly accepts that it’s fine to ask for help – and finds the things that make her feel better.
In terms of tone, the show does tend to leap about a bit. At the beginning we’re told (through the medium of song, naturally) that it’s a happy show, but sneaks in disclaimers about the subject of depression and that there will obviously be serious moments as well. The happy strand to it seems to be Sally’s ‘natural’ personality: what she strives to be, but can’t always manage because her illness takes over. It also shows the unpredictability of depression, returning to blight Sally at what should be her happiest moments – and making even the most trivial of things (being unable to find a specific CD the night before her first A Level exam) feel like the end of the world.
It does do the serious, dramatic moments well, but you can see why it is offset with the genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious moments (and musical numbers); this irreverence balances out the earnestness required for the rest of it. Being thrust from laughter into a deadly serious scene helps to make the message about depression really stand out: “It’s alright not to have all the answers. It’s alright to ask for help.” This style may not work for everyone – it does jump quickly between moods and has a propensity to go a little OTT – but there’s something in Sally’s character that’s rather relatable, and may strike a chord with audience members. To their credit, they’re doing their bit to try & reach out from the stage, providing little envelopes for patrons that contain cards with helpful tips and stressing that it’s a good idea to talk.
Madeleine MacMahon is a strong lead, taking control of the show as soon as she steps onstage as Sally; she’s believably the life and soul of the party (when she wants to be), as well as heartbreakingly vulnerable when she pushes away her nearest and dearest. The way MacMahon quickly establishes a rapport with the audience (over Kate Nash’s song Foundations, of all things) is a key contributing factor to the show’s success. Sophie Clay and Ed Yelland are fantastic as the multitasking supporting characters in Sally’s story – Clay stands out as Tash, a member of a local support group who uses Breaking Bad as an incentive to keep going, and Yelland is superb as the awkward but well-meaning childhood friend Toby.
My verdict? A clash of extremes, as hilarious moments mingle with serious and dramatic ones – overall an enjoyable show with an important message to get across.