THERAPISTS AS HUMANS
Georgina Burns is a trained and experienced NHS therapist, now with Hampstead support a playwright. So, unlike most other writers tempted by the theatricality of talking-therapies and the emotional territory of the fifty-minute hour, she knows the turf. It shows.
It isn’t a rant about government provision or social dysfunction, just a humane exposition of understanding: she portrays with unflinching humour and sympathy the bravely patient people who are tasked with mopping up and taming the mess of mental unwellness , and keeping the desperate alive and reasonably functional. Even, eventually, happy.
Her protagonists have to do it, generally, in a series of six sessions rationed not by the patients’ idiosyncratic needs but by NHS necessity. They’re often deployers of black humour in private, ad are all crisis workers. But as Robyn Skinner once observed of his colleagues in the psychological professions, quite a few who ply this trade or art are also carrying lead themselves, and seeking help through, as he put it, “the staff entrance round the back”.
Such is Lydia: Lizzy Watts as a clever, omnicompetent, organized newcomer, running miles and eschewing tea and coffee offered by the older, more battered and cheerful colleagues Denise and Arthur on the Ravenscourt team. Her tense “I don’t eat cake” tells you a fair bit from the start.
Debbie Duru’s set is wonderfully evocative of a daily NHS workplace: watercooler, clean plain walls in the counselling room, a neutrally soothing abstract . Old Arthur’s cluttered desk is alongside with a bottle (? brandy) in the locked drawer, ready for a quick staff stiffener when the next catastrophe hits. Which it will. And it won’t be Lydia’s fault, not really, even if she does break one golden rule (which the set delivers in a good surprise). Not the managers’ fault either, though there was some question about giving her Daniel, a familiar heartsink client who has been round the block with various therapists often, and occupies – as Jon Foster’s wonderfully bluff Arthur puts it – the borderline between depression and “Obnoxious Personality Disorder”.
Josef Davies’ Daniel is enraging. Truculent, scornful, ungrateful, filled with class hatred of the posh people he blames. Especially authors on radio4 writing books about their “journey” out of being depressed. He is not working because his managers “don’t understand” his mental health issues, was thrown off a deign course for not turning in his portfolio. He is still living at home with a mother to whom he is emotionally welded but despises. He grudges her taste in boyfriends, possibly with reason. He’s furious and rude, and Lydia patiently struggles to unlock him with real kindness. Though, as Denise the real pro observes, it is hard to know if she has too much ego or too little. One of the key skills of therapists after all is accepting that you will sometimes fail.
The asides between the older therapists, glimpses of the clients they deal with, are revealing and funny and humane. There are moments, I must say, when listening in to the sessions with Daniel and Lydia is irritating – neither is at this point likeable enough to care – but the two older staffers are wonderful, Andrea Hall’s Denise pragmatically wise, Foster absolutely endearing in his apparent slight cynicism and the way he becomes heroically kind and courageous when the crisis comes. Daniel’s peak meltdown is violently alarming; Lydia’s unwise involvement tensely frightening. It wont end well.
Except that in a way, it does. Talking at last , admitting her own history of having bouts of frozen self- harming depression Lydia remembers how it has usually ended. With a whatsApp chat that becomes a real one, with an invitation for once she doesn’t refuse, with a sudden nice meal….
We all mess up. Very often we recover, and learn. It’s a lovely play. I hope there will be longer fuller ones. Respect for Hamps, and some donors, for growing it.
Boxoffice hampsteadtheatre.com. To 29 oct