REVIEW: MANIAC on the Dancefloor (Basement Theatre)

Review by Jess Macdonald

[Dancing like she’s danced this dance before]

Advertised as a ‘bangers-fuelled, hour long rave – making a song and dance about recovery,’ MANIAC On The Dancefloor is in fact a raw and impactful account of writer Natasha Lay’s lived experience of bipolar and emphasises the simple truth that one does not ‘recover’ from mental illness but forges an ongoing battle to overcome it every day.

Welcomed into the space, we take note of the sparsely decorated stage: black and white polka-dotted material stretched from the lighting rig to the floor and a rail of brightly coloured clothes – not to mention a birthday cake hidden beneath a table – indicating the party to come.

Onto the stage bounces DaeDae Tekoronga-Waka playing Anna, a lip-syncing diva, flanked by her two associates, Phil and Adam. Anna is a force to be reckoned with, exuding confidence and enough sharp-tongued witty one-liners to put Ru Paul to shame. She introduces herself and her story of ‘recovery’, then pours herself into the first dance number. Both supporting artists take on delightful characters, with Phil hitting marks with a ‘too-cool-for-school’ flair in contrast to Adam’s quirky, off-beat pizzazz. High-energy performances of upbeat songs such as ‘Crazy’ and ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ are light-hearted yet captivating, and the highs are juxtaposed by lows as Anna’s mental state changes. She begins to explore intense feelings of love towards her first paramour, James, and tension ramps into conflict and confusion with Anna’s subsequent alienation from friends as a direct result of her mental illness.

Anna is abandoned mid-way through the performance because she has taken her friends for granted, talking over them and failing to listen to their opinions and concerns. Profound moments of audience participation bring us into the experience – including a line-by-line script reading from Anna’s point of view of her struggle to get out of bed. The image of Irene, a woman in the later stages of life, slow-dancing and comforting the drag artist exemplified the power of live performance to surpass expectations, and was moving and beautiful in a way which can’t be scripted.  

Bold music choices help create the contrast between mania and depression. Julien Baker’s heartbreaking ‘Happy To Be Here’ – a song which describes the singer-songwriter’s desire to climb into her own head and rearrange the wires in order to rid herself of mental health issues – fills a dark stage before Anna’s voicemails to her therapist Lewis charts her attempt to avoid help; the undeniable poignancy causes me to tear up.   The actors come together at the end with a somewhat happy ending, but not in a way which brushes Anna’s behaviour under the carpet.

Director Adam Rohe’s decision to utilise DaeDae’s talents as a drag artist and adapt the character’s creative skills, to design a new persona, was especially powerful. Special mention goes to the dress designed by Phillip Good, intricately made out of psychiatrist invoices and medication receipts – as Anna takes her discomfort and pours it into her art.  

Joined by a friend who has bipolar, my theatre trip was all the more nerve-wracking as I was unsure how he would feel about the material. I was pleased by his perception that the show accurately depicted his experiences, demonstrating how MANIAC is both profound and accessible, and a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience.

11th – 15th June, Basement Theatre / BATS Theatre, Wellington, 9th – 13th July

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