Burnout by Selina Helliwell, a play attempting to clear up stigma around mental health, ran for two nights at the King’s Arms, Salford, after previously running as a shorter piece at the Three Minutes Theatre (Afflecks Arcade) last year.
The plot is set in a contemporary 24-hour gym and concerns the disappearance of Raf, a personal trainer who left a positive influence on everyone around him. He is described as having an aura that “blinded people; it was so bright.”
The seven characters in the play are all connected to Raf, and to each other, in different ways. Daniel, the muscular Casanova and Megan, the flirtatious book lover worked alongside him and knew him well, while Becky, Megan’s girlfriend, has only heard of him through word of mouth. However, they are all impacted by his disappearance. The play intelligently illustrates how easily our actions impact those around us.
Even though the loss of Raf sets the story in motion, the plot is not about him, but the people he left behind, and cleverly shows how they deal with mental health and loss differently.
The highlight of the show is the great cast of characters. I found them all profoundly unlikable, which made them very compelling and interesting to watch. They are all deeply flawed, repeatedly making the same mistakes and impacting each other in negative ways, making them realistic and relatable.
They are all troubled by mental health issues in their own ways: the “flirty, chirpy” Elise is unhappy with her life that appears perfect on the outside, gym goer Jack cannot control his anger, gym staffer Susie is a cocaine-addict, and Tim, Elise’s ex-boyfriend, is extremely paranoid and blames it on everyone but himself.
Helliwell’s honest, informed writing made me feel like I was watching real people on stage instead of fictional characters. In addition, they all spoke with northern accents, making them very relatable for the Manchester audience.
However, though I felt that all the characters were well-developed, I felt that lesbian couple, Becky and Megan, did not get enough attention.
The informational pamphlet the audience received in the theatre stated that the production is supported by Superbia, an organisation that provides financial support for LGBT+ events. This gave me the expectation that I was to watch a play mainly about LGBTQI+ characters.
Even though Becky and Megan are interesting and well-written (their identity is never defined by their sexuality, and they felt real and complex), they were clearly the side characters. They both played the stereotypical role (given to anybody with a minority background) of sidekick/best friend of the two guys in the heterosexual love-triangle that was the main focus of the play.
I feel that it was unfair to market the play as if the lesbian couple are at the forefront of the play when they were pushed to the sidelines in favour of a mainstream love triangle.
The acting is phenomenal; the actors’ facial expressions, tone and body language were natural and convincing, and many characters perform long monologues that they execute perfectly.
The production has minimal background sound effects. The set is simple: there is a workout bench, two dumbbells, and a table with protein bars and a Stephen King novel.
Every time a scene changes, the theatre blacks out, and when the lights turn on again, the stage is changed to represent a different area. For example, the table is covered with blankets to represent a different floor of the gym, or a stool and a loo roll was brought to the centre to represent a toilet.
The blackouts and rapid scenes change to resemble a TV show rather than a live performance. I wonder if the script would be better suited for the screen than the stage.
Burnout by Selina Helliwell is an incredible execution of a simple idea. The theme of normalising mental health discourse is important, but this production could have been more innovative about it, because whilst it is a great story, it is not one that I haven’t seen before. Nonetheless, the story is important, and the production is excellent, so it is well worth the watch.