Grey Matters

LARA FERRIS and MAGGIE BRIDGE very much enjoyed their soirée with Grey Matters.

Chetwynd Room @ Kings College, 7pm, 7.50pm & 8.35pm, 22-24th February, £6

It’s difficult to write that we really enjoyed a play about mental illness – the two ideas don’t really match up – but we would be lying if we said otherwise.

The setup, audience members attending a soirée put on by the Grey Matters theatre group, was brilliant as it provided a cheerful and open atmosphere of communication and sharing. Meeting and chatting to the performers, we learnt about the various members of the troupe, their likes and dislikes – it was as if we’d stumbled into a real community of people, all with something interesting to say. We wanted to hear all of their stories.

Immersive theatre is hard to do well but, despite some of our initial reservations, Grey Matters pulls it off. The overall production is just the right length to allow the audience to really get into the swing of things, allowing us to get over our initial discomfort and really enjoy what feels like our own, minor role in driving the story forward as the actors engage us in conversation. Over and above the audience’s personal comfort though, we think the decision to present the play in this way is a testament to the nuance and sensitivity with which the writers have treated the subject of mental health. Parading mental illness on a stage where there is a clear audience-performer divide runs the risk of making mental health issues into the all-defining feature of a character, but Grey Matters skilfully avoids this, helping to challenge the stigma of mental health issues. Instead, we are given the important reminder that the characters are multi-faceted. It would be foolish to pretend that we didn’t have an underlying awareness of it, but their illness is also only one aspect of the characters that we have the pleasure of meeting and engaging in conversation with.

A positive approach to mental health

A positive approach to mental health

We were absolutely invited to participate in the story played out between Beth and Leo, the characters who guide us through the Grey Matters experience, and it was exciting to be ushered away into the corner and let in one of their secrets. We would also hear whispering and giggling from the other side of the room, and be annoyed that we were missing out on whatever was happening over there. We felt completely engaged with the people around us, which is absent when the audience is sitting in a darkened auditorium. It meant that when something upsetting happened we found ourselves responding in a more open and honest way. Clapping after moments of sharing was roundly encouraged and, unusually for a play about mental illness, we were in a positive frame of mind after the performance, even though the stories we heard were often harrowing.

All of the performers were superb, so much so that at times it was difficult to know if the person you were talking to was ‘real’ or not. The stand-out pieces, such as Jess Murray and Justina Kehinde’s spoken-word poem, Ellen Robertson’s video monologue, or Ifeyinwa Frederick and Helena Eccles’ conversation, were incredibly moving, but in singling out these performances we would hate to detract from the great commitment to performance, and to the creation of the Grey Matters world, led by the rest of the cast and creative team. Even the set becomes, by the end, incredibly moving. The whole experience is uplifting, eye-opening, and, when it comes to talking about mental health, is a breath of open, honest fresh air. With only one night left, you should try to catch it while you can.