An overly ambitious disappointment
CN: eating disorders
Oliver (James Gill) is a man with an eating disorder. He is torn between two women, except not really because they’re both in his head. Heather is the sweet and pure representation of life, while Anna is the hot seductress, aka anorexia nervosa. That's something I'm comfortable spoiling both because it will save you a lot of confusion going in, and because of the sensitive topic of the play (content warnings exist for a reason, and a cheap twist is not a valid reason for being misleading about the content of a play). Oh, and it’s a circus show.
Anna feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. A musical? A public service announcement? A display of acrobatic prowess? The acrobatics were indeed very impressive, as was Anna (Louise Harris) and Heather’s (Charlotte Horner) singing. The circus counterparts displayed excellent chemistry, especially Will Duncan and Sharla Petterson, and the minimal set design allowed the dancers and acrobats to shine.
However, for all the care put into the costumes, song choices, and choreography, the performances felt static because they interrupted the narrative instead of weaving into it, and the whole play suffered as a result. In a play this short, if you’re going to have extended musical numbers, those scenes have to advance the plot. Unfortunately, all they did was show me that the casting director had somehow managed to gather a group of insanely talented singers and gymnasts who together had all the stage presence of a mic stand.
That’s the crux of it: the concept had potential, if writer and director Sharla Petterson had started with the idea of a musical circus show and constructed a story around that medium. I would have welcomed a romance told entirely through choreographed story-telling and song. Instead, it felt like amazing acrobatics had been jammed into a story about anorexia, pushing out all the nuance in the process and leaving only a mess. Why is the doctor juggling? Why are all the men shirtless? Is it a commentary on the physical pressures that men also have to deal with? That would be great, if I didn’t have to dig through ten layers of confusion to get at a point I’m not even sure the director was actually trying to make.
I found the whole thing frustrating and strange. “Guy falls in love with anorexia” is barely better than “girl gets told she’s fat once and promptly stops eating entirely”, mostly because it gives representation to men who suffer from the illness. Anna fails to give a sense of how complex eating disorders are : they are about gaining control, or abdicating control, they are about insecurity, society, identity, self-harm, they can represent a flying leap into adulthood or a revolt against life and its responsibilities. For some the illness may take the form of an external voice, but for many it’s our own voice, a twisted reflection of our own experiences; so presenting a character whose entire personality is “he has anorexia” renders its exploration meaningless. On top of that, what exploration there is just stops once he hits rock bottom. I cannot express strongly enough how jarring it was to jump from Oliver being put on a feeding tube to him being discharged. Recovery is a long, hard process, and one that needs to be shown in a way that gives hope to those suffering and shows others how they can help along the way. Yes, it may take years, but people do recover completely – we are not doomed to an eternal struggle, as Oliver's doctor tells him.
Stories about mental health desperately need that kind of hope, especially now, especially in Cambridge. Instead, Anna is a clumsily delivered warning that fails to provide any nuance or meaningful message about its title illness.
Anna is on at the ADC until Saturday, November 3rd. Tickets are £6-£9.