Monday, 1 July 2019

Review: Electrolyte (Wildcard)

Sunday 30th June 2019
HOME, Manchester (Incoming Festival)

I was at HOME, Manchester on Sunday to see Electrolyte, one of the productions in this year’s Incoming Festival programme. I’ll be reviewing the show on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version of my review…

The Incoming Festival takes place in Manchester, Bristol and London, and showcases emerging theatre companies from the UK and beyond. Electrolyte is a production by Wildcard, which was performed in London on 28th June, Bristol on 29th June and Manchester on 30th June, as part of a UK and Ireland tour.


Electrolyte is a piece of gig theatre, written by James Meteyard and directed by Donnacadh O’Briain. Music and lyrics are by Maimuna Memon. The story unfolds through spoken word poetry and live music (in a variety of genres, though it leans towards the electronic), which is performed on stage by the multi-instrumentalist cast. This is the first time I’ve seen this sort of performance, and it is hard not to be swept up in the energy of it all.

The cast are on stage as the audience enter, apparently tuning up their instruments, joking around with each other, and greeting audience members that they recognize. Of course, on reflection, this is an important (but subtle) part of the show, so perhaps they don’t actually recognize anyone. However, this deceptive casualness sets the tone for Electrolyte’s intimate and personal narrative, which not only breaks the fourth wall at times, but also draws its audience in and encourages a degree of affection and empathy with its central character that should be at odds with its short length and unusual performance style. Music plays a pivotal role in this play, but it would be wrong to call it musical theatre.

The protagonist-narrator is Jessie, a young lass from Leeds, who is played beautifully by Olivia Sweeney. Jessie begins as a fairly recognizable character type – she’s a little bit reckless, a little bit lost, struggling to find anything of value in her life, besides getting drunk and high with her mates. The show proper kicks off when Jessie takes the mic and begins her rhymed and rhythmic narration; she introduces her friends and near enough drags the audience with her to the gig they’re attending.

Sweeney’s performance is mesmerizing throughout. She is instantly believable as the intense but vulnerable Jessie. It is easy to feel that you actually know Jessie – an impressive feat given that the play runs at just over an hour – which is vitally important to the development of the story. Jessie’s vulnerability runs much deeper than initially appears, and the fact that the audience experiences this so viscerally is, to a great extent, credit to Sweeney’s relentless, yet charming, performance.

However, credit should also be given to Meteyard’s writing. Again, the show has a deceptive casualness to it that belies the complexity of its storytelling. Reflecting back afterwards, you realize that careful signs were placed from the beginning of Jessie’s narration. Given the show’s association with the Mental Health Foundation, as well as the content warnings given beforehand, it is not really a spoiler to say that the show deals with issues of mental illness. However, I found the way in which Electrolyte presented and handled these issues to be quite unexpected and innovative. More significantly, I found the type of mental illness portrayed to be very unexpected: this is not a play about depression and anxiety. I don’t want to dwell too much on my own personal experiences, but I will say that Electrolyte deals with the type of mental illness that I have (though not the exact condition). It is rare to see the symptoms of this type of illness represented with such (at times, brutal) honesty, and I was impressed with how convincing Sweeney’s performance was. The rest of the cast move between seamlessly from performing the soundtrack (a mix of almost-numbers and ambient soundscape) to engaging in the action and dialogue with Jessie. Megan Ashley and Ben Simon are reassuringly nice as Jessie’s ‘couple friends’ Donna and Paul, and Chris Georgiou offers some comic relief as sweary extrovert Ralph. Again, the audience is encouraged to identify with the dynamics of these friendships – as it is changes in her friends’ lives (Donna and Paul are engaged, Ralph is moving away) that unsettles an already troubled Jessie.

The final two characters are the new additions to Jessie’s life. Meteyard plays the role of Jim, a London DJ who may or may not be what he seems, and Robyn Sinclair is hypnotic as Allie Touch, a singer-musician on whom Jessie becomes fixated. Sinclair’s vocal performance is excellent – again, making it very easy for the audience to empathize with Jessie’s fixation. But I also liked the fact that – no spoilers! – Sinclair voices lines for another character later in the show, a choice that subtly hints at some of the darker threads of the story.

Electrolyte has no set, save the cast’s instruments, which are laid out like a gig stage. And yet, the show is able to transport us from a flat, to the streets of Leeds, to a train, to a London warehouse with surprising ease. While the writing and performances do a lot of the work here, praise is also due to Timothy Kelly’s lighting design, which really blew me away in the show’s climactic scene, as it captured both the setting and the symbolism in an epic, almost confrontational, fashion.

If I have one criticism of Electrolyte it would be that the show’s ending is rather too neat. The play tackles some aspects of serious mental illness with a refreshing and creative rawness that is rarely seen – and yet, it doesn’t take the same approach to recovery, which is presented as rather too easy here. After being so impressed (and moved) by the play’s representation of symptoms, I felt rather let down by the breeziness of the resolution. I’m all for mental health narratives with happy endings (we’ve seen more than enough of the alternative!), but this has to be balanced with a little more candour.

Despite this, I would still definitely recommend Electrolyte. It’s an exuberant, energetic and intelligent piece of theatre, with a brilliant script and some genuinely stunning performances.

Electrolyte was on at HOME, Manchester on Sunday 30th June, as part of the Incoming Festival. It is currently touring nationally.

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