The issue of mental illness forms but one part of the wider mental health spectrum. It is as complex and universal as it is indiscriminate. The mental health charity Mind points to a statistic that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. And whilst the past two decades in particular have seen great strides made in terms of both the recognition and destigmatisation of mental health problems – resulting in many more people seeking help for their difficulties – much more still remains to be done in terms of its prevention, treatment and the raising of further awareness about it.
With the last point very much in mind, and when taking further account of the fact that current surveys repeatedly show that more and more young people are experiencing mental distress – reporting heightened feelings of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation as well as suicide attempts – the WILDCARD theatre group produced Electrolyte, in which the issue of mental health for a contemporary audience is explored through the medium of gig theatre (a relatively recent phenomenon whereby live music and storytelling meet).
Written by James Meteyard, with music and lyrics composed by Maimuna Memon, Electrolyte tells the story of a young woman from Leeds who is dealing with the recent suicide of her father. It therefore seems rather fitting that we catch up with the production during its current tour of the UK in the West Yorkshire market town of Huddersfield (about 20 miles south west of Leeds) in what are the most splendid surroundings of the town’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, a former Wesleyan church built in 1819 and which now enjoys Grade II listed status.
The play’s narrative is recounted through an extended spoken-word/poetry script, interspersed by the occasional song, performed by a young cast of six actor-musicians and all played out over a vigorous, expressive soundtrack which embraces strong elements of jazz, folk, house, rock and rap with recurring mention being made of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ and the line “we are stardust”.
Yorkshire actress Olivia Sweeney puts in a bravura performance in the lead role. Ably supported by her five fellow actor-musicians, Sweeney convincingly invests her character Jessie with the wildly fluctuating feelings of deep unhappiness, unbridled joy, vulnerability, fear, confusion, anger, self-loathing and, ultimately, hope as she struggles to come to terms with both the death of her father and loss of her mother to earlier domestic violence at his hands. Alongside genetics, brain trauma, childhood abuse, bullying, substance misuse and austerity, in what is clearly not an exclusive list, exposure to domestic violence is identified as a key contributory risk factor to mental illness in younger people.
But whatever the reasons for it, everyone has a breaking point and the road to recovery is hard and not, as is the case in this instance, always successful. In Electrolyte the key elements in Jessie’s eventual recovery are the development of a greater understanding of the issues that are impacting upon her lack of emotional well-being; an improvement in her feelings of self-worth; an increase in her personal resilience; the undoubted power of good, positive friendships/relationships; and acquiring a sense of belonging in her own community.
Electrolyte is a strong, powerful and emotive story and one that goes some way towards increasing our awareness of mental illness, particularly amongst young people, and some of the issues associated with it in this day and age.
Photos: Ali Wright
The Electrolyte tour continues at:
12th & 13th June, LEEDS, Carriageworks
5th July, SHEFFIELD, Crucible Theatre