A lone woman comes through the dry ice holding a lantern and looking serious. So, the initial thought is this one woman show is going to be a hour long misery fest.
Thankfully it is the exact opposite as Alys Williams has written and performs a show that is warm, witty, always humane, but never afraid to delve into the challenges that mental health issues pose for those battling with their own minds, and for those around them.
Cleverly she uses the standard protocol for what happens when a man goes overboard at sea as a metaphor for how society reacts when someone starts to struggle with their mental health, and it’s a motif she returns to throughout.
What really gives The Light House resonance is Williams has based it on her own experience with a partner who does go overboard mentally as they battle the system and the pressures it puts on their relationship. It’s a powerful and honest account of being all at sea waiting for a lifebuoy to appear and the helplessness anyone cast adrift feels.
It might sound bizarre that her partner is represented onstage by a desk lamp, but it works, allowing Williams to tilt the lamp round to reflect her partner’s moods and her reactions to him. Full marks to director Andrea Heaton for making that simple trick so effective.
Williams is very keen on audience participation, and there is no hiding place in the intimate Bramall Rock Void space as various members of the audience are coxed on stage to help Williams recreate some key scenes in her life. Some participants are more willing than others, but it does make every show unique as Williams skilfully bounces off their unpredictable reactions as they dance and join in the journey.
The Light House started life as a ten-minute scratch piece as part of the Furnace programme at the Playhouse encouraging new work, and this is exactly the sort of thoughtful and entertaining piece that this regional powerhouse should be developing. It’s also not surprising to see radical theatre group Red Ladder’s involvement as they have been tackling mental health issues for years with great sensitivity.
Every year one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem, so it’s something that most of us will experience, or in the case of Williams trying to find her way back to the light. It takes great skill to bounce from fun vignettes with strangers to heavy themes, especially when it’s so personal, and that makes The Light House by some distance the best new work I’ve seen this year.
You can find tour dates at https://www.alyswilliams.co.uk/tour-dates
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 8th October 2023
North West End UK Rating: