Chronic (Southwark Playhouse, seen on July 9th, 2021)
The mental and physical impact of having a long-term illness is bad enough – but what about those who suffer chronic symptoms without being able to get a medical diagnosis?
The shocking background to Cat Bensley’s engaging one-woman musical show Chronic is that the average wait for women to get a diagnosis after reporting symptoms of an otherwise invisible illness is 7-10 years.
It’s a show that’s been in development for a while (and previously seen at The Other Palace) but each incarnation is able to tell the ongoing story with updates and these make it all the more hard-hitting. Seeing it on a plain stage with just a few props concentrates the mind perfectly.
As part of SWK Fest at Southwark Playhouse Bensley takes to the stage having previously explained on social media that she received a diagnosis of small fibre neuropathy in March after two years of symptoms.
The darkly comic musical begins in 2018, when casting assistant Cat (who co-writes with Stuart Foulston as well as stars) wakes up with persistent numbness in her hands and feet. Time passes, the pain increases, and doctors provide no answers – indeed they warn Cat against self-diagnosis and tend to dismiss her condition as psychosomatic, especially when tests are negative.
In a clever touch the other characters are only represented by voices, which somehow adds to the sense of mental turmoil. The only people who listen are female friends, a female psychologist and Alexa, who responds positively when Cat decides to write songs about her experience.
The script always tries to be balanced, but it is hard not to be shocked by the medical misogyny and bias and the advice, “You’ll just have to live with it” – when she has no idea what “it” is.
Humour is never too far away despite Cat blaming herself for the unknown illness (the doctor tells her he expects her to be overly dramatic because she is a performer). Director Annabel Mutale Reed ensures the message is not lost but it never overwhelms the humanity of the story.
Bensley’s performance is a firecracker. She lets the audience into her pain, depression and loss of self-worth while also displaying a genuine bravery and an infectious bright breeziness.
It’s so great to have a live band on stage after so many months. MD and orchestrator Sarah Morrison is at the keyboard, with Nick Hill, Gemma Connor and Charlie Maguire adding energy to the songs. As a monologue journey and song cycle, this is less Tell Me on a Sunday and more “Tell Me What’s Wrong With Me, Please.”
Understandably, there are sharp digs in the 60-minute production. Each trip to a doctor dehumanises Cat more and it is heartbreaking to hear of so many others sharing their experiences with her, with male doctors suggesting it’s all down to modern women being unable to cope with everyday life and the demands of today. No wonder Cat’s cry is that half the population should not just be ignored.
But this isn’t a show that exists to serve up feminism in a one-woman musical. Right from the start Cat is proud to proclaim, “I’m getting there” and the show never loses its positivity even through the depression and the challenges thrown up.
Mindfulness sessions Cat attends remind her – and us – that whatever else happens life is about being and that is what makes it bearable.
It provides an inspiring and very enjoyable reminder that the courage expressed in never giving up is something that will also help others in their own fight.
If one of the messages of this show is that joy can be found in the most unexpected of ways and places, then the production is itself a perfect example of that. And it never harms to be reminded of the genuine health benefits of simply *being*