Why write a funny play about anorexia?
‘I like theatre to be funny and I don’t think it takes away from any sort of poignancy or even tragedy. Sometimes the comic bits are the most painful bits – what do you do when confronted with this huge, illogical, seemingly unsolvable illness? You end up being funny, and that just makes it all worse.’
‘Mess’ is merciless about the absurdity of anorexia – could you laugh at it when you were ill?
‘Occasionally, but I didn’t really have feelings any more; anorexia very effectively removed me from them. But things in the show are true, like me writing in my diary that they’d confiscated my Complete Works of Shakespeare and E E Cummings’s complete works because they’d caught me doing step-ups on to them. It’s absurd and also just awful, but that was my preoccupation of the day. But it wasn’t until later that I was able to look back and really analyse it.’ Can a show about anorexia be too amusing?
‘There were a few shows early on where I got quite worried that it felt too funny, but we’re getting more and more consistent at hitting the right balance, and that’s a juggling act every night because if we have an audience who really go for the comedy, we have to pull right back so that the moments of pain in the story can still hit.’
What did your grandmother think about ‘Chrissy’, the show you wrote about her?
‘Oh, she thought it was absolutely appropriate, she always had this slightly inflated sense of her own importance. When I took her back to Paris for four days when she was 90, she was saying “Why is there not a blue plaque with my name on it?” And I pointed out that a) she’d need to have died, and b) she might need to be famous. She was outraged by this, my disloyalty as a grandchild.’
Was it a bit weird having ‘Chrissy’ nominated for an Olivier three years after you first performed it?
‘Absolutely. But it was brilliant. And watching my grandmother’s face appear on a massive screen above the Royal Opera House stage was pretty amazing. I’d have loved nothing more than to have wheeled her up that red carpet.’