Anything but a Mess

Caroline Horton in Mess, eating an apple with feathers flying around
Caroline Horton did a fine job telling her grandmother’s wartime story story. But Mess, her own story of her struggle with anorexia, is in a different league.

If you’ve been on the Fringe circuits, you may have seen a lovely little play called You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy, a one-woman show where writer/performer Caroline Horton plays her own French grandmother, in her wartime story where she was separated from her English fiancé. It deservedly received all-round accolades for her performance, the only question being how she could follow this up. Because, for all these virtues, she had the advantage of a grandmother an amazing tale. However, the way she transplanted the story to the stage clearly impressed the Traverse Theatre, who accepted her into their Edinburgh Fringe programme.

I don’t normally include the Traverse Theatre in my Edinburgh Fringe visits. Unlike most venues, the Traverse is very particular about who’s allowed in their programme. It’s credit to Caroline Horton that she cleared this hurdle, but for me I find the idea of vetting plays as defeating the object of a Festival Fringe. Other people prefer this approach, and that’s fine; we all have a choice. But I have one other problem: the price. Traverse Theatre productions typically cost twice as much as the average Fringe play. This is fine if it’s making use of sophisticated staging that only a permanent theatre can offer, but this could easily have been done in a cheaper venue. The audience only took up a third of the seats (admittedly a morning performance), so I wonder how many people were put off by the price.

And pricing people out is a shame, because Mess is one of the most outstanding plays I’ve seen in my seven years of Fringe visits. Because this time, the person whose story she’s using is herself, and the story is her struggle with anorexia in 2005. Unlike Chrissy where Caroline Horton played her real grandmother, this time she plays the fictitious Josephine. It is not entirely clear how much of this story is real events and how much is her imagination, but things that matter most in the play – the deeply personal thoughts for why you would starve yourself, how it feels to be surrounded by people who think it will be OK if they tell you to eat – have surely come from someone with first-hand experience. To write about something so personal and so recent, and to perform it as well, is an amazingly brave thing to do.

The story takes the form of a play within a play. It’s not quite a one-woman show this time, as Josephine is joined by best friend Boris (Hannah Boyd) playing himself and the flamboyant Sistahl (Seirol Davies) playing everyone else and supplying the music. The set, at first, seemed totally random, until its use became clear – it’s Josephine’s inner psyche, a den where he hides away from the world, where medals hang – metaphorical medals she’s awarded herself for losing eating less, exercising more, losing weight, ignoring the aches and pains. Because in Caroline/Josephine’s world, savagely controlling her size is her way of bringing order to an unpredictable world – her “Mess” – that she can’t handle. At one point, she talks of seeing another woman close to death from under-eating, and feeling not thankful for avoiding this fate, but jealous for not having the control of the other girl.

If this all sounds depressing, this play is actually dominated by humour. At one point, when well-meaning Boris tries to cheer things up at Christmas to ominous music, he asks Sistahl to play something happier, and Sistahl replies that it’s subtext. There is an age-old argument that comedy is for farces, it’s not appropriate for serious subjects and certainly not for subjects as dark as anorexia. I don’t agree with this. There are a lots of humour-free gloomfests out there – some of which make excellent plays – but for most people, the natural response is to detach and desensitise yourself. Humour is a way of letting the audience really getting to understand the characters, really understand how it feels, really understand why people do these things to themselves. It’s shame we’re still having this debate that’s gone on for decades, but this play is a prime example of how comedy and tragedy co-exist in harmony.

There is just one decision I wasn’t convinced by: should Boris have been played by a woman? This is no disrespect to Hannah Boyd, who played the part of a best friend (or shy secret love – not specified either way) superbly; desperately trying to save Josephine from herself without really understanding her, often powerless in the face of what’s happening to her. The question I was asking was, as a play within a play, Josephine was playing herself, but with “Boris” clearly being a woman, this gave me the message that the real Boris wasn’t here to tell the story. Had the real Boris given up on Josephine and taken up with someone else? Had he been driven to suicide? How would this fit into the story to come? It was only at the end of the play when it became clear that Boris plays himself, but I’m not sure I was the only person who found Boris being played by a woman a distraction.

But small distractions like that should not take away from what has been achieved here. Not all writers have can get their ideas from traumatic personal experiences – indeed, this is the last way I would want any writer to get ideas – but for those who do, it’s no easy task to make it into a story. It requires courage to relive the past, honesty to not spin it into self-justification, whilst all the time thinking about how you can keep an audience’s attention. Caroline Horton has resoundingly succeeded on all three. It is a shame that this play is out of reach of budget fringegoers, but it is well worth seeing despite the expense. How she can follow this up is a question for another day, but Mess is more than enough to prove herself as a great writer/performer.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Mess, Caroline Horton

UPDATE 03/01/2013: I saw this play again at Live Theatre on Wednesday, and stayed behind for the post-show discussion. I heard a bit about what Caroline Horton was thinking when devising the play. Some of it was quite obvious – she didn’t want it to end up, in her words, as Anorexia! The Musical, but neither did she want it it to be depressing from start to finish. And some details were more subtle – for example, she didn’t want the play to have any actual numbers of weight loss, just in case someone actually used that as a target to beat.

The most interesting bit, though, was the reasoning behind casting a woman as Boris. The obvious reason was that Caroline, Hannah and Seirol devised the play together, and it would have been rather mean to kick out one third of your cast at the end. Except that it’s a bit more complicated than that. In the early days, there was a period when Hannah was unavailable and the part of Boris was temporarily re-cast with a male actor. The problem with this was that too many audience members interpreted Boris and Josephine’s boyfriend, which spoilt the play.

However, I’m not sure this needs to be an issue. My interpretation of the play was that Boris wasn’t Josephine’s boyfriend as such. He might have liked to be have been her boyfriend, but if so, I imagined him to be the sort of person who’d think Josephine has enough complications in her life without bring up that subject – and I quite liked that idea. Apparently, they tried to make it work with the male actor and failed, but that’s something I take as a challenge. I would certainly stick with the original cast as long as this original production was touring, but if this play is ever revived and cast from scratch, I personally would cast a man as Boris. If they’ve tried everything to stop the play being dominated by the “Is the your girlfriend” distraction – I’d be minded to try again.