OCD is centre stage in a new play which delivers an emotionally powerful and moving insight into living with this most debilitating condition. It is the perfect post-pandemic piece to reopen this intimate gem of a space in a Coventry shopping centre.
We’ve all heard of the disorder and many of us have joked about having a few traits ourselves but ‘Mademoiselle F’, by Vanessa Oakes, brilliantly focuses the audience on the devastating consequences of being unable to escape obsessive thoughts. The title character is based on the first patient to be recorded with what we now recognise as OCD in 1838 at the Charenton Asylum in Paris. Her story matters more than ever as we tentatively emerge from the strictures of a lockdown in which mental illness has been brought into sharp focus. We have a keener sense of what it means to lack control in our own lives and theatre is perfectly placed to explore the unsettling sense that this could happen to any of us.
Miriam Edwards brings a pained honesty and naturalism to the role of Mademoiselle F in a disarming performance. Her frantic routines, removing tights to check in between each toe again and again, are painful to watch and create an immediately compassionate connection with the audience. Her pain and desire to escape her obsessions is beautifully captured in conversations throughout the play with an imaginary polar bear, played with calm, reassuring control and power by Tyrone Huggins in a performance of great physicality.
Dostoyevsky’s famous challenge to his readers to “try not to think of a polar bear” and his assertion that “you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute” provides an original opportunity to explore all of our struggles to suppress unwanted thoughts. Mademoiselle F’s polar bear moves beyond an intrusive thought, becoming part-friend, part-therapist and a reminder of our increasingly fragile connection with the natural world. Writer Vanessa Oakes never strains the metaphor: it works beautifully to deliver us into the internal world of the obsessive-compulsive mind.
Compulsions seem increasingly to characterise modern life: our smartphone obsessions have become so normalised we barely register the underlying fears and anxieties which are at the root of what drives many of us to check and check our devices. Mademoiselle F holds an uncomfortable mirror up to our lives and asks profoundly important questions about how we define ourselves and how close to our own polar bears each of us ever is. A timely, beautifully performed and important new play.
Mademoiselle F is playing at the Shop Front Theatre in Coventry until 12th June 2021.