Lullabies for the Lost (Old Red Lion Theatre)

Lullabies for the Lost (Old Red Lion Theatre, London, until February 1st)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Airing dirty laundry in public is rarely a helpful exercise. But in Rosalind Blessed’s new play Lullabies for the Lost the sharing of secrets and anxieties becomes a step on the path to healing.

The piece is being staged in rep at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington (alongside her play The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People), with chances to see each piece separately or across an afternoon and evening.

The two plays certainly complement each other and Blessed has suggested that they exist in parallel realities. If nothing else they both feature canine heroes, rescue dogs which play their part in helping troubled people to move on, offering unconditional love. This is all the more important when human companions, friends or advisers fail to understand fully precisely what it is that troubles or leads us to a point of despair.

Hard-hitting and clearly drawn from personal experience, this longer and newer play is more obviously about mental health, inhabited as it is by eight very different people relating struggles ranging from eating disorders to childlessness through depression and anxiety.

On an effective clinical white set (Anna Kezia Williams) on which white boxes are scattered and used for furniture eight characters are in search of an escape from their various issues. The setting is a bleak representation of their own emptiness and a fear of allowing themselves to open up to colour and purpose. There is a sense that sharing with others is an important part of the process but it is initially unclear who they are – a gathering of supportive friends? A therapy group? A heavenly waiting room? Or is this a purgatorial crucible of their own making?

As each tells their story they gaze at a locked door hoping that this time it will open and allow them to exit rather than constantly having to relive their narrative. At times there is a distinct Twilight Zone vibe, with the exact setting a mysterious and surreal uncertainty. The play presents a group of people who wait on the edge of hope, eager to fit a series of social “norms” and attempting to conform to a society which they don’t necessarily recognise as being cracked.

For one, apparently newer, member of the group, Larry (a performance of studied apprehension from Chris Porter) there is a fear of going out, a nervousness about how he will be received when he reaches an appointment, a secret demon urging him not to bother.

Another, Nerys, (Kate Tydman) has turned to collecting – not hoarding, she assures us – envious of a rat in her house who can have hundreds of babies while she constantly suffers miscarriages.

Then there’s Sarah (Helen Bang, exuding a confidence plagued by low self worth) a sensitive and lonely soul who has given up on love, wrapping herself in cotton wool of banality, and “Brothers Grimm” Tim (Liam Mulvery) and Jez (Nick Murphey), both having contemplated suicide but each unaware of the other’s state of mind.

As emotions are laid bare we understand the importance of communication (in the real world rather than via social media), the need to share and concentrate on the light rather than the darkness. Shades of light (Mark Dymock) contrast the brightness of the characters relating to and opening up to each other and the relative dimness of inner conflict.

Rosalind Blessed plays Robin, a bulimic suffering from low self image, desperately seeking to be sexually attractive and additionally depressed after her dog died, while Ash (Duncan Wilkins) is a cynical and sarcastic anorexic confined to an eating disorder unit.

It is only when we hear from Andy (a powerful and ardent Chris Pybus) that we sense anyone sees light at the end of the tunnel. Although feeling that he is stuck in mud, a rescue dog helps him to look beyond himself and his self-judging depression.

Blessed’s writing ensures that each of these people matter and the audience (occasionally addressed directly) are on their side, not only wanting them to face up to their anxieties and inner conflicts but to conquer them. Zoë Ford Burnett’s direction carefully complements the words, allowing the brushstrokes of a troubled group to be revealed as unique individuals with a definite worth and value.

While often uncomfortably intense there are welcome bursts of humour and a relief that these likeable individuals encourage one another to be positive and hopeful. There is an important call for anyone undergoing similar pressures to dare to look outwards and beyond where they are at any given moment.

As “Ma” appears (a warm cameo from Blessed’s mother, Hildegard Neil) as an affirming voice from beyond confinement, there is a crucial message about sharing issues, not wasting life, the value of looking for purpose through beauty, love, nature, laughter, art and sport instead of meaningless self-obsession.

Lullabies for the Lost is a wise and important contribution to understanding mental health issues, not least underlining the valuable and vital role of sharing and realising you need never suffer alone. There is no “cure all” solution, but at least there can be glimmers of light, however hard they may be to discern.

David Guest

Images: Adam Trigg

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/

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