13 April 2017

Phoebe Graham struggles with Cognitions

A chair fell off the raised set during the first performance of Cognitions. Like that chair, this is not a show that I’m on board with.

There’s a mother, there’s a daughter and there’s sort of a story of their struggle with mental-health issues. The daughter seems more capable than the mother, but the daughter is going away (to university?), so how will the mother cope alone in her fragile state? I’m not really sure, because any sense of narrative is then discarded into patchy physical sequences and meaningless repetition of previous scenes. There’s some reconciliation at the end, when the mother agrees to go to therapy for her health. But mainly there’s an absolute uncertainty as to what’s actually going on.

The central issue of the mother’s well-being is undefined and generic, meaning that the exploration of her mental-health issues are trivialised and unintentionally insensitive. The character is governed by three non-speaking demon/creatures/cogs/things/blobs, made up of an ensemble of three who articulate her inner-state of mind, slotting and reducing her mentality literally into three boxes. The ensemble is focused and dedicated to the cause, but their execution is rough, their purpose is hazy and they too often cloud the clarity and tone of the narrative.

Isabelle Kabban’s premise is strong – touching on how a parent’s mental health can shape the well-being of their child – but its composition seems nothing more refined than a set of early improvisations. Conversations are drawn out, dull and repetitive. The scattered array of social issues is spread too thinly, so the script and any authenticity of character suffocate as a result. The mother and daughter are stamped 2D archetypes and, for a play that’s so driven by what’s going on insider the head, Minotaur Theatre merely scratches the surface of any personality making up the central relationship.

It just seems careless. And this makes me kind of angry. But I don’t want to feel angry because there’s been an effort to tackle these issues with good intention, and I wish that was the most important thing.

Although irked by the handling of the subject matter, certain directorial choices are effective in isolation. Coloured powder paint, layered transition soundscapes and a set of cling film make for an unusual aesthetic, but these creative aspects don't work in tandem, instead being rendered superfluous, and failing to deepen any dregs of subtext or backstory. The last straw is the lack of bow at the end. When sensitive topics are dealt with, responsibility should be taken and the presence of the audience should at least be acknowledged.

In a festival that should be breaking down taboos of contemporary issues, especially the growing concern of mental-health problems in the UK today, this show doesn’t allow itself to do anything more than reinforce misconceptions.

Cognitions has its heart in the right place, but its beat is lost in a clutter of cliché and thoughtlessness.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca