REVIEW: Valerie (Last Tapes)

Review by Matt Baker

[Theatre at its Finest]

Mental health in New Zealand is a prevalent issue and, by consequence, necessary to discuss. 16% of New Zealanders are diagnosed with a mental health issue in their lifetime, comorbidity increases the risk of death, and our suicide rate is the second highest in the OECD. Mental health is also prevalent in the arts, especially theatre, with a 48% diagnostic rate. The advantage to this, however, is that theatre contextualizes its content with people. The what becomes a who, and the who provides us with an empathetic link that resonates beyond mere statistics and has the possibility of reaching more people.

In Last Tapes Theatre Company’s Edinburgh season fundraiser production, the who is the eponymous Valerie, maternal grandmother to writer, musical director, and performer Robin Kelly. Described as an inter-generational, interdisciplinary and interruptive piece of theatre, Valerie follows Kelly’s unravelling of his family history in an attempt to understand his own mental health through the life of the former. This diary-like narrative is interspersed with Kelly’s own academic musings on genetics, which he studied, and original music, and balances the poeticism of the piece with the lucidity of science.

In both instances, both Kelly’s book and lyrics are not only honest and authentic, but also concise in its economy, providing a devastating weight to their words and lyrics. Every word has a purpose; whether it’s Kelly explaining gene sequencing in DNA, or Cherie Moore articulating the details of a schizophrenic episode from the perspective of an observer, and there is a composition to the script that has a musicality of its own. Lines such as “Nature loads the gun; nurture pulls the trigger”, ring out as if they were lyrics from Patti Smith or Nick Cave.

Dramaturgy by Kate Prior and direction by Benjamin Henson supports such poignancy with simple yet effective Brechtian mise en scène, and are equally highlighted by Rachel Marlow and Brad Gledhill’s lighting design, which shift the atmosphere in a single tone. Sound operation by Sam Clavis is also expertly balanced, allowing the full evocation of Kelly, Moore, and musician/performer Tom Broome’s music to resonate for its audience.

It is this cohesion, in conjunction with the intimacy of the narrative, that makes Valerie a complete and affective production. It is theatre at its finest, and the ethos which permeates it is a reminder of the integral necessity of community in both the arts and mental health. Community, however, is only one component, for there is no single answer to the numerous questions mental health raises. Although with the artistic merit and integrity of company’s such as Last Tapes, producing works such as Kelly’s, these conversations can not only begin with an earnest first word, but continue far beyond the theatre foyer.

Go to Boosted to donate directly to Last Tape’s fundraiser.

Valerie plays at Q Rangatira until 21 July. 

SEE ALSO: Rachael Longshaw-Park’s review of the 2016 debut season. 

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