Chemistry at the Finborough Theatre: a brilliantly intuitive capture of intimacy in the microcosms created by mental illness

Chemistry, the anguished love story between political analyst Jamie and bartender Steph, begins with the two holding one another in the centre of the stage, which is confined by bars, much like a boxing ring. The stage is a nebulous area of darkness, drawing in your senses. Electrical wiring and bulbs are strewn around the perimeter and the room is overwhelmed with fog, heightening the intensity of focus on these two figures clinging to one another. The stage is virtually vacant, with the only prop being Stephanie’s Chemistry textbook – she is a dropout from Brown University. Do not be fooled by its ostensible simplicity; the complexity of their relationship and intricacy of their interactions comes to life as their neuroses interweave, both tugging each other apart and pulling each other closer in their battle with mental health.

Jamie (James Mear) meets Steph (Caoimhe Farren) in the office of their psychiatrist, which immediately puts mental health at the forefront of their budding relationship. In this exploration of mental health, we are shown two very different depictions of its manifestations through both of these characters. Steph is suicidal, suffering from depression. Her relationship with her mental health is a coherent one; she is self-aware and able to elucidate her resignation to the idea that suicide is inevitable for her – it is simply her chemistry. Jamie, on the other hand, is manic and somewhat in denial of his mental health condition, needing Steph’s persuasion to stay on top of his medication. Jamie’s career ambitions had led him to pull out chunks of his own flesh from his back.

At first, the two are blissfully in love and hooked on each other. However, when Jamie returns to work, Steph struggles to get out of bed. Her need for Jamie becomes guilt-ridden. Jamie’s mania, however, energises his sense of ambition and dangerous hurdling towards the cliff-edge of overachievement. The two become trapped by their illnesses, unable to reconcile their love for another with their mental states.

Farren’s performance is riveting as she uses her body to show a child-like nature in Steph, as she sits in the floor before Jamie, legs outstretched with cherubic confidence. Yet, her strong, authoritative voice leads you to believe that Steph is insistent on taking charge of her mental health, even as it slips out of her control. As her mental health faces a decline, she uses her body to recede way from taking space, diminishing herself in foetal positions. Lying in bed, her limbs contort with desperation as she begs for the ceiling to fall and crush her.

Writer Jacob Marx Rice has fastidiously captured the complex web of conflicting desires, the loneliness and the frantic desperation of those who are held captive by mental illness. Steph’s frustration in trying to explain that depression is not a cloak that conceals and buries her, but in fact a part of her, it is her, is refreshingly candid. The claustrophobia in this intense relationship, the broken glass, the circumventing of hard-to-swallow truths, the nursing, the lucid consciousness of the battle between the mind and body is intuitively captured by Rice.

Lighting Designer Rachel Sampley uses lighting to mimic the firing of neurons, which are accompanied by the sound of crackling. The bars that surround the stage are lit as either Stephanie or Jamie provide us with an abstracted monologue. There are also wires suspended from the ceiling in a messy coil that emulate the neurone pathways of the brain, further highlighting the battle for sovereignty over one’s body.

Chemistry is a powerful story which does not invite you to feel pity, but rather invites you into the sanctum of the mind. It provides a glimpse into the intensity of microcosms created by mental illness, enshrouded with conflict and gloom, that people battling with mental illness live in.

Chemistry is on at Finsborough Theatre until the 23rd November

Photos by Claire Bilyard

Theatre Editor

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