Over the Wall Picking Apples, is a solo theatre piece exploring lived experience of bipolar, written and performed by Richard Crowe and directed by Ged Stephenson. It is currently touring South West England, with plans for further touring next year. Trish Wheatley caught a performance at Lyric Theatre, Bridport on 3 October.
Richard Crowe was born a disappointment; he should have been born female. This female self, complete with name already picked out by his parents, introduces us to the show as a flight attendant delivering a safety talk. The performance unfolds with a smattering of anecdotes and scenes that shift between dark moments and light-hearted comedy.
Through these scenes we hear about Crowe’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder, his fears, medication, stories of friends, ideas of masculinity and suicide. I got the impression that many of these stories had emerged as a result of talking therapy, which was confirmed in the post-show discussion. It was made clear though, that this is theatre, not therapy.
There are plenty of autobiographical one-person theatre shows about the lived experience of mental ill-health or related conditions. The performance sets itself apart from others of this ilk by the quality of writing, acting, directing and even venue booking. The quirky Lyric Theatre in Bridport provided an appropriately-sized intimate space. On entrance, a programme and trigger-warning sheet were handed out, evidencing the care and thought that has been put into the needs of both audience and creative team.
Sometimes with shows about personal reflection, I come away thinking that the artist wanted to make sure you can never truly understand it unless you go through the experience yourself. Whilst that is ultimately true, I felt that Crowe’s intention was to show the reality of his experience in a raw, unfiltered way to achieve the most understanding possible in his audience.
The way he developed characters and swapped between them, particularly in the darker moments, was expertly performed. The voices and phrases that were employed through these sections felt familiar and real in a way that got closer to the experience than any before.
In one scene, Crowe demonstrated the experience of synaesthesia through music playing when he touched furniture. This playful moment descended into confusion and sensory overload, with songs overlapping. The on-off music as he touched the furniture didn’t quite match up and I was left wondering whether this was a technical fault, or if the inconsistency was playing on the unreliability of the mind.
Throughout, Crowe punned his way through as much mentalist language as possible for good comic effect and an underlying dig at the way society uses words like ‘mental’, ‘mad’ and ‘nuts’ too freely and without consideration. The writing and inference throughout made the point well, without the need for the angry little aside about his growing intolerance for people using language in this manner.
I was grateful for an ending that was not characterised by being ‘fixed’ or ‘better’, but rather reinforced that this is everyday life and it’s not going away.
The post-show discussion covered the self-care elements of writing and performing work that draws on lived experience. For example, Crowe is mindful not to book two consecutive nights to perform. He also talked about building in layers and degrees of separation to protect himself from the work. What really worked in this case, was that protective separation was not at all evident in the writing or the performance.
Over the Wall Picking Apples is a brilliantly written and performed show, that gets to the heart of so many aspects of mental health. It also creates an excellent route into starting a conversation and Samaritans are present at each performance. Once this has grown and toured it will be interesting to see where a future production might take us in exploring what living with the condition throws up in everyday life. I think Richard has material for life should he wish to continue creating work in this vein.
Visit the Over the Walls Picking Apples Facebook page for details of future performances.