Toby Moran Mylett reviews Pub Talks at The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter
Engaging and visually fascinating throughout, Pub Talk’s ‘A Pint Sized Conversation’ deals with the subject of depression, in the company’s own words aiming to be a piece ‘offering support, and not getting it right all of the time.’ It’s a nice sentiment, albeit quite an open-ended one, but if anything, it sets up the piece to be a fascinating exploration of a mental illness that has arguably become one of the most stigmatised subjects of modern life.
The small ensemble work beautifully together and deliver very personal and varied individual performances, seeming truly genuine when addressing the audience – which they often do – to check everyone’s ‘doing alright’ or ‘needs any more crisps’. The writing is compelling and assured, with many poetic moments, very clever observations (a scene where a train passenger insensitively complains about a delay caused to his service due to a fatality on the line is one that springs to mind), and perceptive humour. The use of onstage free-standing microphones creates several interesting audio-visual experiences, and these alongside the lighting used in the production, at points only that from multi-coloured fairy lights, work brilliantly to create an opening segment which very effectively sets the tone and explains the science behind depression – a dimension often completely forgotten by explorations of the subject.
The varied and innovative ways in which the company depicts aspects of this mental illness is certainly one of the biggest strengths of this production, using physical theatre, monologues, and even a bafflingly good card trick at one point to encourage you as an audience member to view the illness from a number of different perspectives – which is vital, it seems, to gaining a measured understanding of it. The unpredictable manner of presentation of these aspects also means you are constantly gripped, waiting for the next skit, whatever form it may take, to teach or persuade you to see another side to the subject. The intimacy of the production too, and the way the performers frequently address the audience out of character, and even provide interactive opportunities at points also make the production even more engaging.
However, whilst it certainly deals with the subject, the production doesn’t fully explore, grapple, attack, bite or punch depression – though certainly at points it shows an admirable anger towards attitudes much of society has about mental health. And if the mission statement is anything to go by, this is quite possibly exactly what the company intended to do, but with a subject as messy, convoluted and difficult as depression, perhaps a deeper exploration was needed. The piece, as the title suggests, is more of a casual dabble or drink into the subject, whereas the pre-performance publicity to me at least seemed to suggest something deeper.
That said, though, the production is a creative and interesting glimpse of a world many of us may have entered, been trapped in, or ventured dangerously close to – and indeed the idea that anyone, anywhere, could be suffering with the illness is brilliantly conveyed. Moreover, the piece doesn’t do what such plays so often end up doing: generally totally unintentionally patronising the audience – and it deserves great credit for this, which the eloquence of the writing and individual performances prevent from happening.
‘A Pint Sized Conversation’ is certainly pint sized; that’s both a compliment and perhaps a point for improvement. Whether it’s born out of a fear of causing offence, or an intentional confidence in not needing to delve so deep into the subject to say what is trying to be said, the play only skims the surface of this massive, difficult topic. Nonetheless, it’s most definitely worth seeing, and you’re bound to leave feeling uplifted, entertained and enlightened.