Some things are just meant to be special! Take The Almighty Sometimes for example. It’s an award winning play from an award winning playwright in Kendall Feaver. It boasts a stellar cast that includes Julie Hesmondhalgh and Norah Lopez Holden. It’s produced by those folk at the Royal Exchange, who just cannot seem to put a foot wrong these days. So it’s no surprise then to find that The Almighty Sometimes was a stunning success.
Feaver’s play, which delves into the relationships between mother and daughter as the spectre of dealing with mental illness begins to take their toll, won the 2015 Bruntwood Prize. The teenager is played by Holden, who charts the young woman’s condition from childhood into adulthood, and how it has affected her relationships with not only her mother, played by Hesmondhalgh, but how it affects her relationship with her boyfriend (Mike Noble), her psychiatrist (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), her friends, and ultimately her ever depending relationship with her medication.
Trying to convey mental illness in an evening on stage is always going to be a challenge. To see the transition in character so that the emotiveness of the moods and feelings that affect one’s mental well being is a tough one to act. Holden takes up this challenge and gives a career defining performance that should have her earmarked for riches beyond this production.
It is not that Lopez Holden hasn’t wowed audiences at the Royal Exchange before. Her turn in last year’s Our Town drew it’s fair share of plaudits. Nevertheless, it’s her portrayal of the troubled teen, Anna, that stands head and shoulders above others. It’s a fantastic layered performance of a person suffering from depression. We get to see the range of emotions, from the cheerfulness of her character to the positively painful scenario of her writhing in agony. That contrast isn’t just turned on and off like a switch, due not only in part to the excellent direction of Katy Rudd and Feaver’s excellent writing, but also in part to Holden’s ability to play out that transformative transition in front of your very eyes.
Playing the battle weary mother is former Coronation Street star, Julie Hesmondhalgh, and as you’d expect is an excellent foil to Holden’s teenager.
The rest of the cast also rise up to these lofty standards. It is easy for the supporting actors to play it safe and steady, making sure that they do not put a foot wrong, so that the main elements of the play can shine. Yet, when they are in that spotlight, they shine every bit as Hesmondhalgh and Holden. Noble as the love interest is obviously commendable for his charming quirky comical performance, and his rapport and chemistry with Holden is a joy to behold, as is Duncan-Brewster as Vivienne, who is equally commendable in her role as the studious psychiatrist.
Both have big moments in the show that require them to be take that centre stage and portray the raw emotions that the writing and direction demand. It’s what gives this play an extra dimension, for it could have just been about Anna and her mental illness.
Feaver’s writing is also a wonderful element that allows the actors to be so blooming brilliant. The subject matter may be no laughing matter, but at times it is nothing but a laughing matter. It is that ability to give a little light relief to proceedings through the wry observations of it’s writer and the humorous interplay between the characters, which gives this play its charm and turns into from being just another kitchen sink drama that is too downbeat.
It would be remiss of me to single out all the stellar performances and ingredients without paying homage to the aspects that takes this to the next level. Any set designer worth their salt will have fun with the infamous Royal Exchange stage and likewise Rosanna Vize uses the challenging confines to her advantage.
The lighting (Lucy Carter) and sounds (Giles Thomas) are just as integral to the production values as the acting on display. Used quite expertly to resonate with the subject matter. There is an element of physical theatre to the raw emotion on stage, which culminates in scenes that see all these elements come together – the clever set that turns into a physical metal mind maze, an array of bright lights, a burst of short circuiting sounds, that forces the audience to empathise exactly what it’s like to be in the grips of Anna’s mental state of mind.
There is so much to enjoy about this production. The astounding acting. The wonderful writing. The dazzling direction. It’s no surprise then that some things are just meant to be special!
Verdict: A phenomenally well acted and a fantastically well produced play that deals with mental illness. It leaves you laughing out loud one minute, and crying tears of empathy in the next. Deserves every bit of praise that is lavished upon it.