REVIEW: Crowded, a Half Moon and Apples and Snakes Co-Production (Half Moon Theatre)

Mummy has managed to spend two Thursday evenings in a row reviewing shows for young people involving monologues about mental health. Like Germ Free Adolescent, Crowded has been developed in response to the growing number of teenagers struggling with their mental health, and aims to tell authentic stories that will resonate with young people. And just as every individual’s personal experiences of mental health are very different, so are these two productions that are playing just a few miles apart.

Crowded is an immersive new spoken word drama which is written and performed by three inspiring poet performers: Desree, Laura Rae and Slam The Poet. It was originally commissioned in association with Spine Festival, London 2019 before being developed as a co-production by Half Moon Theatre and Apples and Snakes. Mummy was invited to see the show at Half Moon Theatre, where it is premiering before embarking on a nationwide tour.

Set in a community festival, it follows three groups of young people whose struggles with anxiety, depression and desire impact not only their own lives, but also the lives of those around them. Having been given a wide brief, each performer wrote separate 15 minute pieces, which were then weaved together with additional text by dramaturge Rosemary Harris. Through a mix of spoken word and music, they voice feelings that are often surrounded by social stigma, with the festival setting really giving a sense of how lonely it can be to struggle with your own mind, even when you’re surrounded by a crowd.

Laura Rae and Slam the Poet in Crowded. Photo credit: Stephen Beeny.

From the moment you enter the auditorium, you are part of the festival. There is no designated seating. Nobody showing you where to sit. You don’t actually have to sit at all. Audience members simply choose where they feel comfortable within and around the festival tent. Some position themselves right in the centre, while others hug the edges. This makes for a truly immersive experience and also ensures that the show is never the same twice. It also provides an additional layer of challenge for the three performers, who don’t have designated places to perform any particular part of the piece. They have to work with the space available (sometimes gently moving audience members out of their way to do so). But it also removes the barriers between audience and performer, who are on the same level and are almost indistinguishable until the performers being to speak.

Each performer has their own distinct style and deals with different issues. Though they are not the personal stories of the performers themselves, they focus on prevalent issues affecting young people, including eating disorders, self-harm and the pressures of school and social media. Two of the stories are told from the perspectives of others, raising the difficult question of what to do if you are worried about the mental health of someone else.

Desree in Crowded. Photo Credit: Stephen Beeny.

Desree powerfully explores how it feels to know that a friend is self-harming, authentically conveying how conflicted she feels about whether to keep the secret, and how her own anxiety is caused by constantly worrying about whether her friend is safe. She also really highlights how pervasive the effects of phones and social media are on every aspect of young people’s lives today.

Laura Rae also looks at mental health through the lens of an observer, but this time a more distant acquaintance who starts to notice that something is wrong during the festival. This slightly more detached approach allows for greater description of the physical effects of bulimia, and highlights that it can sometimes be easier to talk anonymously or to someone who is less connected with your life.

Slam the Poet takes a more personal perspective, his character torn up about acting on new-found feelings for a friend, replaying the scene over and over in his head throughout the festival. His hip-hop embedded poetry works brilliantly here, with the repetition and rapping really giving a sense of the frenzied nature of his mind. Though there are so many powerful lines in this piece, he stands out when he speaks about feeling like a stranger in your own skin. This is surely something that will resonate for so many young people who have ever felt different or unsure of themselves.

It’s all brought together with lighting and music that add to the feeling of being in a festival. The performers work both individually and as a group, weaving their way through the crowd and feeding off the reactions of the audience. Though they tell three separate stories, they converge as the night comes to an end, and feelings start to come out in the open. There is no resolution to the stories. No quick fix. But a real sense that a conversation and a sharing of the burden could be a first step in the difficult process of healing.

This really is a piece of work that will speak to so many, but particularly the teenage audience (13+) at which it is squarely aimed. Although Mummy is not a teenager and nor are her children, she was one once and they will be one day. Many of the issues affecting young people are the same as they were back when Mummy was that age, but with the horrible added pressure caused by social media. Mummy will be forever thankful that she is just slightly too old to have had the full impact of social media during her teenage years (which were limited to texting on a Nokia 3330 and chatting to a handful of school friends via MSN Messenger from a shared family PC that used dial-up internet). Mummy is also terrified about the munchkins entering the social media minefield, and is pretty sure neither of them is getting a phone or any other internet-enabled device until they are at least 53 years old. On a more serious note, some of the issues raised in the show did resonate for Mummy herself, especially the way in which mental health problems impact on the family and friends of those directly affected.

It was really interesting to watch the reactions of the teenagers in the audience on Thursday night. Some were engaged from the outset, while others seemed quite uncomfortable, perhaps embarrassed by the immersive elements (and unsure whether it was socially acceptable to be enjoying themselves while people spouted poetry in their faces). But as the show went on, even those who seemed initially unsure, took to swaying to the festival beats and even singing along in some cases. Many stayed for the Q&A session at the end, asking insightful questions about everything from the creative process to how to keep a straight face when performing. It was great to see them so engaged and keen to talk openly about the issues raised in the show. And to hear them ask about how to get involved in youth theatre!

Crowded is an entertaining but also challenging show. It confronts its audience with difficult subject-matter in an intimate setting that can be quite intense. And though it doesn’t dare to answer the questions it raises, it does highlight how important it is to be able to speak them out loud.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Crowded premiered at Half Moon Theatre on 6 November to 11 November 2019 before embarking on a nationwide 10 venue tour. We reviewed it on 7 November.