It can be easy to make grand, sweeping statements about the artistic vision of your theatre company but much more difficult to actually follow through. So it is impressive to see Playing ON, who “make theatre with communities whose voices are seldom heard”, do exactly that with their new play Hearing Things. Developed from five years of careful and painstaking collaboration with the staff, patients (and their relatives) from mental health institutions including the Maudsley and Homerton, playwright Philip Osment draws back the curtain just a little on the world of psychiatry.
Reflecting the broad scope of its source material, and perhaps hinting a little at the experience of mental health issues, the multiple stories Hearing Things tells are fractured, their pieces shuffled out of order as the company of three actors dip in and out of a range of characters. It’s a brave approach but one which is directed with great fluidity by Jim Pope, making great use of a reconfigured auditorium with Miriam Nabarro and Jemima Robinson’s in-the-round staging creating a really playful space, for even though mental health is a weighty subject, there’s flashes of real humour here too.
Osment’s play thus approaches its issues from all sides – everyone agrees that the NHS is being stretched way beyond its capabilities, suggesting the knock-on effect of challenging the mental health of the central psychiatrist Nicholas. Which speaks to one of the wider themes here, that anyone can experience mental distress, no age, class, gender or colour lines here, and that modern society needs to find a way to be more open about this, the need to properly consider the ‘health’ aspect of mental health (speaking of – whether by coincidence or design – it is #TimetoTalk day on Twitter).
Hearing Things thus proves to be a most thought-provoking drama. Even the smaller things like the vocalisation of ‘voices in the head’ offer a striking insight even as they barely scrape the realities of experiencing them. And the moments of emotional breakthrough or even just connection, whether it be between doctor and patient or between the patients themselves (a scene of real pathos from Jeanette Rourke and Daniel Ward) humanise these stories in an invaluable way.