CW: psychosis, mental health, suicide/self harm, eating disorders, psychiatric ward, homophobia
Section Two is a new play written and co-directed by Tom Gould, which tells the story of a young man named Chris and his struggle with his sexuality and debilitating mental disorder. The story is told through alternating scenes between past and present, shining a light on how Chris ended up ‘sectioned’ in a psychiatric ward and his complicated relationship with his school friend, Frankie, who he ends up falling for. The marketing for this show heavily featured a cross on a necklace, leading me to believe that religion would be an important theme, and I was looking forward to seeing the interplay of some extremely difficult topics and how the five characters would explore and develop them in interesting ways. Unfortunately, the cross turned out to be an utter red herring, and between the unnatural dialogue, disjointed scenes, poor direction, and plot (or lack thereof), I was left thoroughly disappointed and confused by this production.
The play starts off relatively strong: Chris (Cameron Forbes) wakes up to the sound of a harsh alarm in a hospital bed, and speaks to two members of staff at the ward who inform him of his condition and why he is here. Joan (Harriet Thomas), a nurse, set the tone well with the unimaginatively named Dr. Frost (Joe Byrne) by constantly cutting over Chris’ lines, ignoring his needs and emotions, and effectively dehumanising him while maintaining sweet, superficial smiles and calm if patronizing demeanours. However, what I found confusing was the significance placed on Chris’ necklace – one of his first lines is literally a demand to have it back to make him feel safer – only for it to never be mentioned again. I thought the necklace would be much more important to the plot given its prominence in the posters and the way it was introduced (à la Chekhov’s gun), and the false promise left me feeling dissatisfied and lost. The play simply deteriorates from this point on.
Forbes delivered a striking performance as Chris, meticulously handling his slow descent into psychosis while still maintaining consistency of character throughout. His strongest moments were his monologues, and watching him talking to thin air in his psychotic episodes was nothing short of mesmerizing. He was well-complemented by Max Penrose as Frankie, who perfectly executed a shy, awkward, but unexpectedly bold love interest. While I occasionally enjoyed their intimate moments, their chemistry was let down by the script – their first date in a café was mostly inane and superficial conversation, and an attempt at making a joke out of the fact that they didn’t know how to make conversation fell flat. The subsequent deeper discussion about coming out to their parents felt wholly out of place, and I found it difficult to stay engaged and focused when normally I would have related to their stories on a personal level, mostly because their lines seemed so stilted and unrealistic.
All of the actors tried their best to bring a flat script to life, but were doubly hindered by poor direction; lines were delivered without much thought or emphasis on the right words, and characters would often launch into monologues without warning, meaning the audience had to play catch-up to accommodate for the abrupt change in tone. The execution of the scene transitions was also shocking; one would think that more attention would be given to this, as the play literally alternates between timelines and the set is constantly being reshuffled throughout, but they were clunky and badly rehearsed. At one point, while Chris is delivering an important monologue, the four other cast members rush on stage to rearrange the set while he is speaking. This utterly nonsensical choice meant that the sounds of stomping feet and screeching furniture completely distracted me, and the moment was completely ruined as a result.
The directors would have done well to add some music or dimmed the lights to streamline the transitions a bit more. There were several other points in the script that were simply abysmally timed: actors would begin the next scene before the set rearrangement was complete, or start a line only to have the banging of the backstage door interrupt it as another cast member exited. The first few times it occurred, I attributed it to opening night nerves, but when it continued to happen for the rest of the hour, I could not make any more excuses. Moments that could have been incredibly poignant were instead rushed through without giving them the proper pacing they deserved, leaving me with the mental equivalent of whiplash and a lack of investment in the characters, due to the total lack of immersion into the story.
The one saving grace was the appearance of Emmy (Abby Ferraro), a fellow resident in the psychiatric ward who suffers from an eating disorder. Her character’s easygoing manner was a breath of fresh air, which was a good thing in later scenes but was slightly to her detriment in her first appearance, as she was introduced so abruptly that I initially thought she wasn’t real. This was not helped by the fact that her costume (turtleneck jumper, loose bottoms, and sandals) was a sharp and noticeable contrast to the plain white clothes and dark shoes that everyone else was wearing, as it led me to think she could not possibly be anything else but a figment of Chris’ imagination. Discovering that she was in fact a real person surprised me, and I was also unsure how she furthered Chris’ journey beyond being a friendly face in the ward and, at the end, an example of total recovery for him to aspire towards. However, her scenes with Chris were by far the most natural and interesting, and the ease with which they conversed meant that this was the one part of the script that was tolerable.
As for the plot generally, I felt that nothing significant really happened, and the portrayal of the story behind what landed Chris in the ward was told confusingly. The play built up some significant foreshadowing to this plot point, but when the play was about to end, I checked my watch several times, wondering why the climax hadn’t happened yet. I then realised it had already happened without me even noticing, and the moment was so underwhelming considering the buildup, it completely passed me by.
To be fair, the production was not without its merits. Apart from the acting, I must also make a special note of the lighting choices throughout the play, which were very effective; bleak white glaring lights were perfectly suited to the hospital scenes, and warmer colours were used for the past which got progressively darker throughout to reflect the progression of Chris’ disorder. Sound was also well-executed in parts, though I do I feel that the designer missed a trick with representing the voices in Chris’ head; I was expecting to hear frequent pre-recorded tracks of static or overlapping voices to illustrate Chris’ confusion and terror while trapped in his own mind, but this barely featured except for during one intense scene, which came on so suddenly it felt out of place. The best lighting choice by far was the way the lights slowly flickered out at the end of the play; however, I am unsure how much of this was due to the symbolism, and how much was my relief that the play was finally over.