This review is from November 2016. 'Still Ill' is back at New Diorama in January 2018.
Among less sensitive doctors it’s diagnosed as SLS - ‘shit life syndrome’. Physical symptoms, like seizures, muscle weakness, even paralysis in extreme cases, have no discernible medical explanation. These cases are extremely common, little understood, and are the subject of this intricately-layered, exquisitely detailed piece from Kandinsky Theatre.
The main character, Sophie, is an actor. The actor playing her is called Sophie (the excellent Sophie Steer). Sophie has a major part in a cliche-laden medical drama, playing a brain surgeon with a brain tumour. When Sophie’s own medical problems start, she no longer has to enact the trauma of debilitating disease – she’s living it. But are her symptoms any more real than those of the doctor she plays on TV? Her own GP seems to think not.
Whether Sophie’s symptoms are ‘functional’, ‘non-pathological’, ‘psychological’ or ‘psychogenic’ it nevertheless sounds, to most people and even to a lot of medical professionals, like ‘made up’. So this piece, by Al Smith, Lauren Mooney and James Yeatman and set to a live atonal soundtrack by Zac Gvirtzman, does more than just lay out the facts of ‘functional neurological disease’. It looks at the inextricable interplay of fact and fiction with meticulous research that is apparent, but always kept slightly under the surface, informing rather than defining the play.
Most scenes, with squelching, shuddering soundscapes from Gvirtzman, build to frenzied climaxes and that’s where this play is surprisingly affecting. Not in the squeamish details (descriptions of catheters and cannulas, and where they’re shoved) but in the evocation of psychological anxiety.
At the same time as it probes the psychology of illness, the show’s masterstroke is to use theatre – itself a jumble of truth and fiction – to try to understand where make believe starts and stops. Exposed lights double as stage lights and as surgical lights; monitors dotted around the space double as TV screens and as medical monitors with constant streams of numbers and waveforms.
Steer is accompanied by the impressively versatile Harriet Webb and Hamish MacDougall, who play an array of characters. Although the play slightly loses its focus and playfulness towards the end, paring back to a fairly naturalistic drama, it hardly matters. It’s deeply sophisticated, sensitive stuff, with a strong Charlie Kaufman flavour and an aftertaste of Tim Crouch.