Insightful, hilarious and seriously terrifying, Unprescribed is an intense experience. We are welcomed to an open day at ‘The Centre for Reorganisation’ to see their methods for treating anxiety and obsession. Our host for the evening, who appears to be running the centre, addresses the audience as soon as we enter, instructing us in how to be comfortable with a chilling RP train announcer voice. Leading the fantastic all-female cast, the centre’s coordinator is one of the best performances I have witnessed in fringe theatre. Beginning with a cold, chilling Master-of-Ceremonies charisma, by the middle of the play she has become a demon dance instructor meets drill sergeant, and maintains a feminine control, even managing to keep it sexy despite the fact she has clearly lost her mind. Her restrictive dress and intimidating stilettos align with the emphasis on physical pain as a “treatment” at the centre and makes a bold statement about the lengths women are expected to go to in order to paper over their cracks.
Performances from both ‘cases’ are also excellent. The subjects for treatment are Cases A and B, two women undergoing the process of “reorganisation” who have been chosen as examples for the outsiders. Case A suffers what sounds like an obsessive compulsive disorder – specifically an urge to chop vegetables that consumes her – and Case B is going through an existential crisis of sorts, in which she is driven to despair by anxiety about the impending doom posed by global warming. Words specific to mental illness are not used in the play: everything is euphemistic. Rather than gloss over or soften the subject matter, the use of euphemism has the opposite effect – it seems all the more disturbing. Both actors teeter on the edge of the sane without being caricatures – we’re laughing with them, not at them. Thanks to the great performances and well written monologues, the audience gets a real insight into the characters’ pain and they become sympathetic and relatable, despite the surreal staging. The absurd props actually work to great comic effect and provide relief from the dark subject matter, rather than undermining it. Be prepared for some scene stealing fresh produce.
The staging of the play is extremely inventive and makes the play run seamlessly, despite its often bizarre content. The mysterious fourth character, a dream woman/stage hand/songbird combination is instrumental in this smooth running, and the actor executes the role with the subtlety that’s needed. There’s moments where characters seem to leave one side of the stage and immediately re-enter through another, and others where deliberate disturbances off stage add to the atmosphere of the play. Tricks like these can easily fall flat in fringe productions on sparse stages, but the small ensemble here have a knack for pulling it off.
Unprescribed is not going to be a play for everyone. Its weird. But it offers often dazzling performances, and a depth and a beauty in its writing that makes it an alluring and memorable piece of theatre.