Watching Goldfish Suffocate
David De Giorgio
Vertigo Theatre Productions
Around one in four of us will experience a mental health problem in the course of the year according to the latest research. This compelling new play, the first by the talented actor David De Giorgio, shows what happened to David himself when he had a breakdown about 18 months ago. It was just as his career on the Manchester Fringe scene was beginning to take off and through attempts at self harm he nearly didn’t survive it.
The piece was first produced earlier this year as a one man show and has benefitted by this restructuring and opening out. Whereas in the original everything is described by David here we see more of what happened acted out for us by a talented quartet who play many characters.
The main framing device is the ongoing chat David has with his therapist. This allows him to tell his story and then show it to us.
At the start David is working in a gym and beginning to get good roles in the fringe with Vertigo Theatre Productions. We’re shown how his health tumbles as he forgets lines, develops huge anxiety and starts to hear a voice which terrorises him. The voice is convincingly played by Richard Allen who pours verbal poison into David’s ears while the stage is bathed in a disturbing red light. Gradually David’s mental health deteriorates to the point where he has to leave his job. His relationship with his girlfriend collapses and he is forced to see a doctor by his sympathetic sister Beth. This is a very moving performance from Celine Constantinides who also plays the girlfriend and later a humane mental health nurse.
At the beginning of Act 2 David can no longer deny his need for help as the voice is winning. David’s psychosis is cleverly depicted. We see how he comes to believe that the world can be saved by his setting his car roof alight, how the tv news is speaking directly to him and he has the power to heal. These are deftly realised by the other members of the cast in a fast moving sequence with lovely dashes of dark humour.
While the first Act fizzes along with many short scenes and a very fast pace things do slow down considerably in the second Act. This is fine as it mirrors the way that the medication David is on slows him down and he begins to respond to in-patient treatment. There is quite a lot of use of mime as when David narrates and the actors playing his sister and father continue to talk silently. There is a nod to the daddy of all mental health plays when Richard Allen does an effective Jack Nicholson cameo from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which David comes across on a You Tube video.
Gradually David’s mental health improves and his persona visibly alters. To begin with he has many tics and looks genuinely red eyed and distressed. His anger and confusion are palpable and raise the concern as to what he is drawing on for his performance as it is so realistically raw. Through the second Act he appears to heal and eventually banishes the voice to the sidelines in a lovely piece of staging.
David Edward Lock plays doctors and also a patient superbly well. He makes us care about the patient whom David De Giorgio at first dismisses. Richard Allen also plays a nervy young male patient with aplomb and makes the audience laugh a lot through showing the social ineptitude of the character. The group therapy scene is perhaps the only other point when the Cuckoo’s Nest rears its head again. In spite of the title of the piece no animals are harmed in the production.
The play is a huge risk both to David De Giorgio and to Director Craig Hepworth who is skilfully played on stage by David Edward Lock. He reveals his own battles with mental illness. This frank portrayal of mental breakdown is particularly stark after the death this week of the actor Robin Williams. Craig Hepworth stages the work brilliantly in the confines of the small playing area beneath the main Taurus Bar. There is a lovely coup de theatre which connects the end to the beginning and which this reviewer will not spoil. The production has visceral emotion, appropriately strong language and menace but it could still encourage others to seek the help they need. They may come to realise as David later says to Craig addressing us, why should they suffer in silence.
Reviewer: Andrew Edwards