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Theatre Review Mental health check

A stunning new play on a young woman battling her inner demons raises some acute questions, says PAUL FOLEY

The Almighty Sometimes
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

AS THE epidemic of childhood mental illness threatens to overwhelm an increasingly tenuous NHS provision, Katy Rudd's production of Kendall Feaver’s perceptive, shocking and beautifully crafted play is timely and urgent.

It not only unravels the severe impact of mental illness on an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, it also reveals the damage such a profound illness has on carers.

Anna has carried her mental illness like a rusty anchor from her early childhood. Renee, her frightened and anxious mother, tries to “edit” her daughter's life by intervening and directing every important decision.

Now she’s reached 18, Anna begins to wonder who she is — maybe it’s time to stop popping the daily cocktail of chemicals and set the real Anna free.

The alarmed Renee feels the need to step in. But both women are strong-willed and the inevitable clash irrevocably changes their fragile relationship.

Feaver’s writing is extraordinary. Sharp, and without a single wasted word, it creates fully rounded and complex characters as it slowly opens a window on the reality of their difficult lives.

Such great writing is rewarded with outstanding performances from the entire cast. Norah Lopez Holden (Anna) is rapidly becoming a great actor. After a bravura performance in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at this theatre last year, she delivers an astonishing tour de force as the cerebral pendulum in her head swings from charming to hysterical, from the witty comic to paranoid manic, from sweetly loving to hate-filled vengeance.

She effortlessly moves you from you wanting to hug and laugh with her to shaking every bone in her body. It's a performance that should sweep the boards in this year’s acting awards.

The wonderful Julie Hesmondhalgh is perfect as Anna’s frustrated and broken mother, who flips from being appalled at her daughter’s behaviour to being overcome with her deep love for the troubled girl.

Mike Noble as Oliver — a lad with his own issues who eventually finds Anna too much to handle — is excellent as her confused boyfriend, while Sharon Duncan-Brewster gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Vivienne, the psychiatrist who Anna depends on as much as the drugs to keep her stable.

Slightly aloof, she's conflicted by the need to be objective at the same time as her inner humanity recognises what a great person is buried deep within her patient.

A magnificent play. Highly recommended.
Runs until February 24, box office: royalexchange.co.uk

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