From neurodiverse production company ASYLUM, comes SURFACING: a new play that combines theatre and technology to present the reality of mental health crises, but in a different light. It follows therapist Luc, as an appointment with potential new “service user” Owen doesn’t go according to plan; overwhelmed by feelings of guilt at letting him down, she decides to pay him an unofficial home visit – little realising the journey she’s set off on. The play is written by Tom Powell and directed by Stephen Bailey, and is in the middle of a short run at this year’s VAULT Festival.
Before the play proper begins, there is a short recorded audio description that explains the multi-roling nature of the show and also explains that all performances are classed as ‘relaxed’; whilst this is excellent in principle, you can’t decide that audience members should be free to come and go if needed and then hold your run in such a cramped room. Unless you’re fortunate enough to sit on the aisle, there’s no way anyone’s getting out of there without everyone in the row moving out and completely disrupting the whole thing – which goes against the whole idea. Obviously the ushers need to make sure that seats are filled sensibly & efficiently, however I think they should be briefed to allow a smidgen of flexibility and allow audience members to sit where they feel comfortable, and make them feel like they are OK to step out for a moment if it becomes too much.
Attempts at accessibility are much more successful in terms of the show itself, with captions appearing on a screen at the back in full view for everyone in the studio. Initially, having Luc’s inner monologue playing out as recorded clips (with their own separate captions) means there is a bit too much going on, but it comes into its own as intrusive thoughts come thick and fast; the captions become more dynamic, swarming around and completely overwhelming Luc (superb video design from Ben Glover). It is a bit strange that there isn’t more audio description, however.
Actors Rosie Gray and Daniel Rainford both wear wristbands which are supposedly motion sensors, but after having seen it I cannot tell you what they actually do – other than distract with their red flashing lights. Also, having the microwave sound so loud that you can’t hear what Luc’s saying seems a bit counter-productive; yes, there are captions, but it goes on for too long for this to feel like a conscious choice, so it ends up feeling a bit odd.
The play itself feels like it’s a work-in-progress rather than a full production, as there seem to be lots of random ideas floating around with very little cohesion. At one moment, Luc’s supervisor is a talking microwave; later on, actors Gray & Rainford start playing with balloons (punting them into the audience is an incredibly dozy idea, too – who wants to be hit on the back of the head with a balloon at full pelt because people behind you decide to act like absolute idiots?); all I could think when Luc started emptying bags of shredded paper onto the floor was “good luck cleaning that up in time for the next show”. Oh, and Luc used to do experiments on mice, and inexplicably named one Jacob – who then keeps appearing to her (along with other mice).
Luc has been repressing a traumatic memory from her childhood for a long time, seemingly has no one to talk to about it, and is living an isolated existence. I understand that after living under this incredible stress, she’s bound to reach a point where something snaps, and the effects of this could be unpredictable – even if she has reliable coping mechanisms and therapy that usually seems to work well for her. Unfortunately though, if a play goes from one incomprehensible scene to another, it makes it nigh on impossible to follow. Or care about the outcome.
My verdict? If the main character’s inner thoughts are displayed for all to see and you still can’t fathom what’s going on, something has gone wrong.
SURFACING runs at the VAULT Festival (Studio) until 19 February 2023. Tickets are available online or from the box office.