The Almighty Sometimes review – an excellent, empathetic portrait of mental illness

<span>Max McKenna and Nadine Garner in The Almighty Sometimes.</span><span>Photograph: Pia Johnson</span>
Max McKenna and Nadine Garner in The Almighty Sometimes.Photograph: Pia Johnson

It seems no matter how far human ingenuity extends, the workings of the mind remain stubbornly opaque. Neuroscience can tell us a great deal about the way our brains function but consciousness itself – our sense of identity and creativity, our personality and proclivity, our very notion of self – is to some extent utterly mysterious. And that’s before we consider the complications that come from mental illness. How can we calm, control and regulate what we barely understand?

Kendall Feaver’s award-winning debut play, The Almighty Sometimes, doesn’t shy away from the wondrous and frightening unknowability of the mind, even as it explores the fraught and complex issues around mental health diagnosis and treatment. Its central character is a young woman, Anna (Max McKenna), who has a serious mental illness for which she has been taking medication from the age of 11. She’s now an adult, which means everything is changing.

Mum Renee (Nadine Garner) is incredibly supportive, perhaps overly so. New boyfriend Oliver (Karl Richmond) is sanguine and understanding, at least initially. Anna’s longtime psychiatrist Vivienne (Louisa Mignone) is wary. As a paediatric doctor, she’s preparing the way for Anna’s transition to another physician.

From the very beginning, the work seethes with a barely placated menace, a tension the playwright keeps palpable but unspoken. Anna seems well, but is she really?

The play’s inciting incident is Anna’s discovery of some stories she wrote as a child. They’re really good, full of imagination and creativity; proof, in Anna’s mind, of a latent talent that’s been suppressed by the medication her mother and psychiatrist have been administering for years. What if her real self has also been suppressed? Shouldn’t she discover who she is without these pills?

It is to Feaver’s credit that she takes what is ostensibly the problem play – the kind of drama that occupied Ibsen, elucidating a social issue in a naturalistic setting – and makes it searingly contemporary, imbuing it with intellectual heft and emotional complexity. The playwright has a powerful capacity for empathy, so that each character’s moral and psychological viewpoint is sketched with a kind of dignified conviction. In a way, everyone on stage is right; the conflict comes from the intractability of the problem, not the care or compassion of the people caught up in it. We are buffeted not by personalities but by the immovable fact of mental illness, its tendency to suck all energy into itself.

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McKenna is superb in the trickiest role on stage: they have to balance a highly infectious enthusiasm with an ominous and eventually ratcheting mania, both driven and tormented. Anna is hardly endearing, her crackling intellect so often weaponised to inflict harm on those who love and care for her most. McKenna never retreats from the character’s abrasiveness – the playwright deftly articulates the difference between Anna’s pathology and her flawed personality – but they also allow us to see the grit and courage underneath, the profound grappling with the self.

Garner is also magnificent as the frayed but fearless Renee. She conveys an unwavering devotion to, and bone-wearying frustration with, her vulnerable daughter; the years of accumulated slights and triumphs, the serious progress followed seemingly inevitably by the crushing relapses, are all written on her body. It’s a powerful portrait of the carer as warrior, reaching for respite. Richmond and Mignone are strong in support, each given potent monologues that state their cases with penetrating force. Director Hannah Goodwin keeps the small ensemble tightly calibrated in a production that never lags for a moment.

Jacob Battista’s ingenious set – a series of gunmetal grey interlocking shapes that spin on a central axis – is both highly functional and emotionally impactful. It suggests anodyne domestic and medical spaces, frosty and soulless, but it transforms, with the help of Amelia Lever-Davidson’s excellent lighting, into something sinister and overwhelming. Kelly Ryall’s composition is deeply affecting too, pushing into the nightmarish. It could easily feel exploitative and tacky, an indulgence in “madness tropes” you see in horror cinema, but it’s judiciously employed and highly effective.

Feaver’s excellent play has a probing, clear-eyed intelligence, coupled with a keen empathic sensibility. It acknowledges both the nobility of the struggle for those living with mental illness, and the care and attention of those who seek to help. The key question – whether creativity is compromised by mental health treatments, and whether this compromise is justified – is left unanswered, not as an evasion but as a recognition of its complexity. We’ve certainly come a long way in our understanding of the human mind, but The Almighty Sometimes points us towards the murky, ambivalent regions of our consciousness we’re still to traverse.