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Caroline Horton's new 'Mess'

The writer and performer explains how she made anorexia funny in her new play, 'Mess'

Photo by Alicja Rogalska
Birmingham-based writer and performer Caroline Horton, 31, first made a splash in 2010 with her eccentric solo show about her late French grandmother, ‘You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy’ (which belatedly received a nomination in this year’s Oliviers). New show ‘Mess’ is a surreal, brilliant and semi-autobiographical tragicomedy about anorexia.

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.’



Thank you to Caroline and colleagues for their brilliant performance at the Institute of Psychiatry this evening. I came to watch it with friends from an ED support group and fellow patients from the Maudsley. As someone who has suffered from eating disorders for 11 years, I found many scenes in the play both very funny, mainly because they were very true for me or for other people with EDs that I know. Some parts felt painfully true. The play has given me some food for thought as I try to move forwards in trying to recover my life. I would highly recommend to anyone affected by eating disorders.

Rosa Swallow

I found this play extremely offensive and insensitive, I do not have nor have ever experienced anorexia nervosa, but i have several close friends who have and this play seemed to take the 'mick' of the disorder and several people walked out from distress. I go to an all girls boarding school and the disorder is a common problem here. I do not feel the play helped at all, the acting was poor, the assumptions and stereotypes of anorexia were extremely exaggerated and i would strongly suggest not seeing it. In retrospect it may be helpful for a younger audience ( 7-11 years old) to educate them about the problem, however for me ( a 16 year old) the play was patronising and not helpful. It actually seemed to promote anorexia in a positive light in parts of the play which was ignorant considering the 450 insecure teenage girls watching. It also made the mistake of saying the disorder is only really a problem for girls which is also not true. With wooden acting, poor projection and confusing setting, the play was abominable and offensive. Considering I didn't have a choice to watch this and the money was put on my bill, i am even more outraged and have asked to donate the money to something worthwhile such as BEAT which is a charity which actually raises awareness and helps combat eating and mental disorders.

Joanna Smith

I watched it at school and everyone (all 450 people) thought it was awful. It is a complete waste of time. I fell asleep three times and would have rather been writing an essay. It is incredibly offensive to anyone who has ever been anorexic. Most people walked out because of the poor-acting and boredom. To reiterate, a complete and utter waste of time, if we could have given it no stars, we would. It was the worst play we have all ever seen, do NOT watch it! All the good reviews are wrong, they clearly don't know what anorexia is really like and it was very insulting. My six year old nephew could have written a better play.

linda Hallam

Impressive. I wish someone would write/perform about what anorexia is like from the Mother's point of view. When my daughter was SO ill I thought I'd die from the agony of watching her and living with her.