Wednesday, 19 September 2012

My Shrinking Life (yes, a proper review like the grown ups do)

My Shrinking Life is an extended exploration of Alison Peebles' attitude towards her Multiple Sclerosis. Rather than follow a linear narrative, or weigh down the performance with facts, figures and definitions, Peebles teamed up with Belgian director Lies Pauwells to devise an episodic meditation on the emotional impact of the diagnosis.
The cast of five, including Peebles herself as a knowing, sardonic presence, are flung through a series of abrasive scenes: Katie Armstrong variously dances her way with balletic grace through a hygiene routine and reveals her bruises beneath her dancer's physique; Hanna Stanbridge captures the anxiety of a young actress both hoping for fame and despairing at life's inevitable end: Thomas J Baylis throws down a distorted dance solo, tries on Peebles' dress for size and introduces Peebles with the sleazy jealousy of a bad TV host. The youthful company are in stark contrast to Peebles' mature cynicism: at times frustrated by their glamour and energy, casting world-weary condemnations on their idealism and naivity, she remains in command, even at her most vulnerable.

This vulnerability - made explicit by her faltering attempt to walk in high-heeled shoes or her closing monologue that sits between a late-night confession and an audition piece for her resonant voice and deft acting ability - is the core of My Shrinking Life. The set, done up like a hospital, all faded white and an operating theatre's light looming ominously above the cast, emphasises how Peebles' life is now determined by the medical profession: her responses to her MS, whether raging, melancholic or accepting, lend the production its distinctive structure.

Under Pauwell's direction - her previous works have included the controversial NTS version of Knives in Hens, which matched David Harrower's famous script against a bold, physical production - My Shrinking Life juxtaposes moods and experiences at a dizzying pace. Messages are relayed relentlessly: the final conclusion, that mock the very idea that humans can be free, is only one of the many powerful ideas that are telegraphed throughout the hour and forty five minutes. The horror of celebrity, the disappointment that follows fulfilled ambition, the foolishness of youth, the cynicism of old age, the absurdity of expressing honest feelings through a medium as deceitful as theatre, the careless boasting of the capable, the frustration of being expected to conform to a disabled persona: snatches of conversations, memories and dreams tumble together, often unresolved, always demanding.

If Peebles manages to expose the universality of her experience - fear of aging, the collapse of self-confidence and the betrayal of the body by the body are common - she simultaneously ensures that her story cannot be reduced to some trite metaphor. Her personality is consistent at the centre of the action, and she is unapologetic about emphasising how MS has impacted on her quality of life. There are plenty of big issues in the piece, but no generalisations.

My Shrinking Life is, inevitably, daring theatre. Not because of Peebles' unflinching gaze at her life and prospects, nor for the joyous abandonment of the limited strictures of traditional theatre. Rather, its refusal to pander to expected ideas - the sudden appearance of a little girl in pigtails bearing a charity tin dismisses the sentimental stereotypes of disablement - and committment to bearing witness to the complexity of Peebles' experience make My Shrinking Life a savagely honest account. 

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