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Review: SOME DEMON, Arcola Theatre

The winner of last year's edition of the Papatango Prize receives an intensely powerful staging at the Arcola.

By: Jun. 20, 2024
Review: SOME DEMON, Arcola Theatre  Image
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Review: SOME DEMON, Arcola Theatre  ImageThe Papatango Prize is probably the most important free-submission competition for new writing in the United Kingdom. Hosted by the company of the same name, the winners of previous editions include Dawn King’s Foxfinder and Igor Memic’s Old Bridge. It’s a huge platform.

Last year’s winning play hits the stage at the Arcola with a profound reflection on the shortcomings of the nation’s mental health support system. Laura Waldren lifts the veil off an eating disorder unit. While the characters try hard to cope with an alienating structure that fails many of its patients, Waldren examines institutional callousness and human failure. Chosen from a staggering 1,468 scripts, Some Demon’s an excellent pick. Though far away from an easy watch, it’s rife with urgent necessity.

Waldren’s debut is simply remarkable. It contains a lot of material that could be considered surplus in most cases, but these extended scenes become lateral plunges into the psychological depths of the women described. It all contributes to the creation of roles that feel real: these are your neighbours, your children, your niblings. Through difficult mealtimes and seemingly useless group exercises, the staff struggle to make a difference in their inpatients’ lives. The piece spotlights an overwhelmingly understaffed organisation that chooses proceduralism over humanity. Leanne, one of the nurses, has a patronising edge that has her so wrapped up in the legalities of her job that doesn’t notice that 18-year-old Sam is bawling her eyes out upon her arrival.

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Amy Beth Hayes, Hannah Saxby, and Joshua James in Some Demon

Portrayed by Amy Beth Hayes, she ends up being accidentally amusing in her blindness. It’s an exceptionally dark method of lightening the mood, and some could quip that it’s not humorous at all. Joshua James is the other key worker and the only man on stage. He starts off as a relatively irrelevant presence, but he suddenly rises to main character energy with a striking turn in his performance when more about him is revealed. James adapts a renewed attention to his physical vocabulary as he enters the audience’s favour. It’s an impressive change of pace in its minutiae of his act. 

We see four patients being treated in the facility. Waldren ties Zoe (Sirine Saba), a well-established long-term case, and Sam (Hannah Saxby), of barely legal age and scared to bits, in a warm brushstroke that, in one go, lays out the diversity of the illness. Nazia (Witney White) and Mara (Leah Brotherhead) complete the scope. It may seem rather scholarly to have such a specific range of degrees and stages of eating disorders tackled in a single project, but it adds to the vibrant awareness campaign. The playwright weaves an educational vein seamlessly and the relevant information intertwines with remarkably natural dialogue in George Turvey’s cautious vision.

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Sirine Saba, Amy Beth Hayes, Witney White, and Hannah Saxby in Some Demon

His direction remains on the naturalistic spectrum, with tense scenes interlacing with easier moments that still retain profundity. Saba takes over the space, leading with affecting vitality until Zoe too breaks. Relentlessly biting, cynical, combative, and contrary, she is the soul of the show. Her sardonic ways balance out Saxby’s quiet and collected delivery. The two, opposed in spirit on the surface, illustrate verisimilar afflictions.

The drastically different relationships with food becomes a jarring reflection on toying with death and the fallout on those around us. What transpires from the play is that the establishment of an external support system is crucial to the success of the treatment and the subsequent road to recovery. 

Turvey’s approach to the material is almost clinical, with the didactic knowledge of the script slowing the action down to heart-wrenching instances. Finally, Anisha Fields sets the scene against a perfectly bland and unengaging greige design. The visuals, unfortunately, feature a lot of blind spots that impair the sightlines, but we realise that’s more of a structural problem of the venue itself.

All in all, this is a production built brick by brick by empathy and humanity. It’s often unsettling, reluctant, and laborious - very much like rehabilitation usually is. Don't expect any sugarcoating.

Read our guest blog from writer Laura Waldren about the production here.

Some Demon runs at the Arcola Theatre until 6 July and at the Bristol Old Vic from 9-13 July.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz


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