We begin at the beginning – so to speak – of a motivational seminar; the lights flash, the music booms and our presenter, Jesse (Nick Robinson), is propelled onto the stage, an energised picture of confidence seemingly powered on his own self-belief. Jesse, a self-help guru and his own personal hype man, is here to tell us how we can own our own destinies by facing forward, not seeing unwanted surprises as problems and pretty much every other self-improvement trope you can think of.
If that sounds flippant then that is far from my intention – in this snappy 70-minute show, writer Tom Derrington creates a caricature of self-help culture that pinpoints why so many people are caught in its thrall, and why this is so problematic. There’s a precision to Derrington’s writing that from the start levels this production up to a different class; the characters are perfectly drawn, the script is incredibly funny and the play tackles some serious, challenging issues that are landed in warm, witty dialogue without ever tripping into anything darkly comedic.
Nestled in the audience of Jesse’s seminar is Sylvia (Chrissie Derrington – yes, Tom’s mum!); a mother looking for answers after Jesse’s work makes a profound impression on her son, Elliott, who has been living with depression but is temporarily but almost frantically inspired by Jesse’s ethos. The narrative unfolds gradually, switching between power-posing and positive thinking, and Sylvia’s journey here as she grapples with Elliott’s mental health struggles. The acting on display here is sublime – Robinson is perfectly cast as Jesse, but Derrington is perfect ten times over; dipping in and out of new characters, making off the cuff jokes at what’s happening around her one minute and then breaking our hearts with her distress and desperation the next. Both Robinson and Derrington are simply superb.
I’ve written for this website before about plays about mental health being somewhat ubiquitous in the amateur/fringe theatre world of London, but this truly felt like a fresh script that tackled issues in a new and thought-provoking way. For me, it spoke to concerns that have always been in the back of my mind when confronted with any self-improvement ideology or content. Yes, there are intoxicating examples of people who claim to have changed their lives through the power of positive thought (but no one wants to read a book about anyone who hasn’t, do they?) – but is there a danger that this guidance oversteps the boundaries and could end up being harmful to those to whom it most appeals?
I’ve never done this before, but I found last night’s performance so compelling – and was also reminded how gorgeous the Lion and Unicorn’s outdoor area is – that I’m going to go back and see it again. I want to share it with someone who I hope will enjoy it as much as I did – so who knows, maybe I’ll see you there?
Bounce runs until Saturday 10th June, https://www.thelionandunicorntheatre.com/
Reviewed by Zoe Meeres
Reviewed: 6th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: