WEIRD (Theatre 503)

WEIRD (Theatre 503, Battersea)

Writers have never been shy about tackling mental illness on stage: King Lear, Hamlet, A Doll’s House, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night and more recently the musical Dear Evan Hansen have all dared to deal with an “invisible” illness too often used as a cheap way of getting laughs.

Every now and then a play comes along to turn perceptions on their heads and present issues from a deeply personal point of view, battling against the way they’re portrayed in the mainstream media. Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka impressed at the Edinburgh Fringe a couple of years ago with its frank insights into anxiety; heading for the Fringe this summer is the already highly regarded WEIRD, previewed this weekend at Theatre 503 in Battersea.

Lucy Burke’s darkly comic piece explores obsessive compulsive disorder and its effects on everyday life, relationships, and families but what gives the play a sharpness and deep-seated truth is the fact that she has based it on her own experiences.

There is plenty of humour but this is a world away from the stereotypical jokes of ignorant comedians and internet memes which want to poke fun at what are regarded as quirky and embarrassing traits that sufferers should be able to snap out of if they wanted to.

Never once in this tight production, directed by Peter Taylor, do you feel that this is merely the work of someone who has done plenty of research. This is so honest about OCD and its effects on the people having to deal with it that it often stings. It is frequently heart-wrenching in the way it shows how one person’s illness can cause others to be forced to live in its shadows.

In Lucy Burke’s profound writing we discover that OCD is more than just people obsessed with dusting or sticking to daily routines rigidly; here the sufferer is tormented when having to perform even the most straightforward of tasks, something that delivers a powerful punch in the final minute.

Amy Doyle is captivating as Yasmin in this monologue, sharing memories of growing up in a world frequently cruel to anybody perceived as different. Her believable and likeable character does not allow herself to be defined by her illness and the audience is encouraged to share the laughter, the tears and the debilitating effects that it fosters.

She brings to life characters, including her mum and school bully (you’ll even fall in love with Craig the hamster), and there is a tangible sadness in the fact that few of the people around her ever quite understand the problem Yasmin faces other than a friend who simply likes her for herself.

But this is also a play about growing up, discovering friendships, and even learning to love and value yourself, finding hope and light in the darkness.

The play is co-produced by SLAM and Lucy Burke’s Some Riot Theatre, which aims to give voice to marginalised and under-represented members of society.

WEIRD made it through every night of the SLAM Soaps Arcola Theatre new work development week before winning the grand final, which led to a full staging of the play at the Arcola in February. It is the sort of play that needs to be seen to inform, but it is also a work that demands to be seen to entertain.

(WEIRD is playing at the Pleasance Theatre Courtyard, Bunker Two, until August 27th as part of the Edinburgh Fringe)

David Guest

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub