It has become the fashion to make musicals out of apparently untouchable subjects. The Ipswich murders in London Road, female genital mutilation in Book of Mormon and now, Mess, which makes a song and dance out of anorexia. “Don’t leave!” as the cast shout at the top of the show. It sounds appalling but in fact it is one of the oddest, funniest, saddest pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some time.
Mess is the creation of Olivier-award nominee Caroline Horton, who, in character as Josephine, charts her own battle with and recovery from anorexia with a little help from her two friends – bumbling Boris (charmingly played by Hannah Boyde in a Biggles hat) and a primadonna-ish pianoman (Seiriol Davies).
Developed with experts at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and a grant from the Wellcome Trust, Mess could be worthy and unwatchable but it’s not. Rather it is informative and witty and constantly prods away at the strangeness of its subject matter. “Today we are going to tackle issues and conquer stigma”, says Josephine in the first of many self-conscious moments. Later, a meal of apple slices is dragged out with all the suspense and thundering piano of a Hammer Horror while an awkward conversation about checking into a clinic is “lightened” for the audience with a spot of swing-dancing. It is definitely whimsical and probably not to everyone’s tastes.
It is also packed with insights – the most frightening of which is that Josephine’s illness is a source of comfort to her. She relishes filing away print-outs from the scales at Boots and giving herself a medal for every meal missed. When she is at her worst, she wraps herself in a duvet and isolates herself on a pedestal, like Winnie buried up to her waist in Beckett’s Happy Days. She thinks she is happy but really she is, says Boris, “like a balloon the air is slowly being let out of – empty, wrinkly and no fun.” The touching ups and downs of his relationship with Josephine give the play its heart while Horton, in a vintage dress one size too small, is a compelling performer.
Mess is not just about one woman and her eating disorder, it is about addiction of all kinds and the fight for control. Josephine’s desire for perfection spills over into the show which is, she repeatedly tells the audience, a not-quite flawless prototype for a far glossier and more gorgeous West End production one day. As in life, reality insists on busting in and making things messy but recovery is learning to embrace that. In any case, this show is beautiful, just the way it is.
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (020 7223 2223; bac.org.uk) to 1 June