Outside looking in

Outside looking in

26 March 2018

can't stop can't stop provides a rich seam of material in need of a more consistent through-line, says Louisa Doyle

“I’m not going to do anything theatre-y for this bit – I’m just going to talk.” 

This is how Sam Ross introduces a monologue about taking anxiety-depression medication. He pulls out a box of pills – point of reference – then swoops past the audience with a dizzying haze of information about obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Ross has a knack for intermittently stirring the stage into a whirlpool and standing in the eye of his own storm. But he’s right: it often doesn’t feel a like theatre. The didacticism makes it more like a PSHE lesson at 100mph.

For all the listing of symptoms and re-enacted rituals, can’t stop can’t stop feels like ripe, yet unrealised, material for performance. It goes unsaid that it takes a lot of bravery for Ross to play himself and to lay bare his tedious, often torturous experience. He often does so through unadorned speech. But theatre gives you a toolkit to reconfigure a narrative creatively into something else, something more resonant because it is more accessible. I needed a leg up into his mind. I couldn’t do that from simply watching his confrontations with the given objects of fear, because it left me stuck in the role of spectator. There were efforts to work in some suspense to keep the audience attentive: the nuisance of the ringing phone that eventually got him into therapy later, or his delayed explanation of his revulsion to the letter “J”. With a more consistent through-line to tie events together, I would have felt better-led through his story.

A therapist can unjumble and give structure to a patient’s experiences. But that is the responsibility of a theatre-maker, not their audience. Ross' ukulele song is a wonderful example of how that can be done, muddling his struggles and stresses into a melody that sticks in your head by pulling on your heartstrings. It was “light relief” (his words) not because of the content, but because of how playfully he communicated it. Not to mention how he negotiated the round with excellent awkwardness, shuffling 90 degrees at the end of each verse. What might seem like a throwaway joke, “I tried it wearing a dress. Didn’t work so well” – was a much-needed reminder that this is a real person onstage, not a statistic.

At moments like that, Ross pulls you back into the room. Equally gripping is his confession of an irrational fear of the spirit of Jimmy Savile infiltrating his eyes, ears and other orifices. It’s an obscure, yet totally believable paranoia of spiritual possession that I wish he could have further explored. 

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed can’t stop can’t stop. I don’t think that was the point. To understand Ross' mental illness requires a degree of suffering on our parts that should not necessarily be compromised.

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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato