Pill (GM Fringe)

Rebecca Phythian
Blue Balloon Theatre
Salford Arts Theatre, Salford


Pill is a very angry play. Even before it starts, author Rebecca Phythian (who plays herself) and Adam Martyn, who takes on the other roles in the play, glare at each other across the stage in confrontation pose.

Rebecca Phythian went on the oral contraceptive pill in 2015 as her then boyfriend refused other methods of birth control, such as condoms. For six years, she suffered side effects including mood swings, anxiety and depression and found medical professionals to be unsympathetic.

Pill is an autobiographical verbatim play and so inevitably takes a highly subjective approach with little objectivity or attempt at balance. The side effects of the pill—mood swings, weight and blood pressure fluctuations—are listed and, at one point, spelt out on Phythian’s body. The strong sense of personal grievance limits the appeal of the play to a wider audience and makes it difficult to determine its objective other than to raise awareness of the limitations / side effects of oral contraception.

The dramatisation is literal. Phythian displays the mood swings she experienced by shouting and shows how she tried to relieve her anxiety by jogging around the stage. The approach, however, has limitations. The unsympathetic treatment she received from the health service is represented by repeating an encounter with her GP, word for word, four times. It makes the point and conveys a sense of frustration but is not particularly interesting to watch.

Phythian’s criticism is not limited to the health service. She objects to the perception of the pill as a symbol of liberation or the tendency to regard it as a panacea which can be prescribed to resolve all birth control problems.

At times, Phythian simulates a full-on rant and the fury in the play limits any possible debate. It is not unusual for doctors to try one type of medication and replace it with another if it seems ineffective. Yet Phythian regards this approach with the pill to be treating patients as guinea pigs.

Pill is a short play running for only half the scheduled hour. The remainder is taken up with a Q&A session during which Phythian addresses some of the niggling doubts which hang over the play including why she didn’t take an alternative approach to birth control such as dumping the boyfriend who refused to use condoms. Yet a reliance on an after-show event to tie up loose ends suggests the play might have been stronger, taking a more objective approach and allowing wider aspects to be included. But that is the issue with anger—it tends to close down discussion leaving the audience to wait until the shouting stops.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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