“Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s direction makes so much sense and is so smooth and clever, that it lifts the play further off the page”
There’s a moment when the man handing over my ticket says: “You do know the running time is 2 hours 40, right? Including interval!” that I thought ‘how can I make a polite run for it?’ Afterall, as he pointed out, most plays at the Bush Theatre are little more than an hour. I hadn’t eaten, I’d travelled an hour to get to West London; my dog was at home. 2 hours 40 feels like a long time for a play in 2022.
It turns out that I would sit through six more hours of Paradise Now! (by Margaret Perry). I would accept days of an Inheritance-like sprawl of this play – about an intergenerational group of women dealing with loneliness and unfulfilled ambition, as they get sucked into the heady world of multi-level marketing by Alex (Shazia Nicholls).
Five women, from different ages and backgrounds, all on a quest to find meaning in life. The story focuses on Gabriel Dolan (Michele Moran), who lives in a London houseshare with her big sister Baby (Carmel Winters) and TV-presenter-wannabee Carla (Ayoola Smart). Gabriel has recently experienced a significant depressive episode, something her big sister reminds her of constantly when she comes home from her retail job, knackered. “You won’t sleep on the couch again, will you?” Gabriel asks, and Baby immediately falls asleep on the couch.
Gabriel’s journey into selling essential oils to other women is motivated by wanting to help her sister get out of the 30,000 hours she’s given to the store – there’s a heartbreaking scene at the very end of the play where Baby says no-one even gave her a leaving card when she retired (but even the most heartbreaking moments are riddled with Perry’s wry jokes and whip-sharp commentary on life).
Enter the stage: Alex, a woman who recruits other women to sell essential oils. She’s glamorous, an excellent seller, but cracks of insecurity start to show. She’s acted brilliantly by Nicholls, who manages to convey the multi-faceted personality of this multi-level marketing guru with precision and humour. She encourages women who feel they have nothing to be proud of in life to start mini-businesses and become someone – in this case, by selling “a little touch of luxury at an affordable price point.” But she’s no saint, as we see her begin to unravel throughout the play – at one point while being attacked by a robot vacuum cleaner.
The essential oils business (called Paradise) is marketed as a ‘team, a family’, and our band of characters enter into the business with varying levels of enthusiasm. For some, like Gabriel, it appears to be a lifeline, and offers a chance for her to experience a different kind of life where people believe in her for the very first time. The enthusiasm is perfectly tempered by Anthie (Annabel Baldwin), Carla’s girlfriend, who, as an outsider, brings a note of healthy skepticism to the proceedings. Baldwin uses their face to convey bafflement at what’s going on throughout, and they have both outstanding comic timing and dance skills, employed to show their fruitless search for success.
My only (tiny) criticism is the script’s tendency to throw in exciting-sounding backstories that aren’t fully explored. Laurie (a slightly unhinged and blunt character played exquisitely by Rakhee Thakrar) reminds Alex multiple times that she knows her from school. Alex can’t remember her, but we never found out what happened at school to make her reappear in the very offbeat way she has. There’s also a coming-out memory, which didn’t feel completely necessary.
However, these minor dramaturgical questions aren’t enough to detract from the sheer joy of a production that sings: there’s simply no real bum note. The writing is sharp and with one-liners genuinely so funny that the actors sometimes swagger when they say them because they know they’d raise the roof at a stand-up set. The set is modern, dynamic, with space-saving furniture devices that would leave IKEA begging for the patent from set-designer Rosie Elnile. Jaz Woodcock-Stewart’s direction makes so much sense and is so smooth and clever, that it lifts the play further off the page and thrusts it to even greater heights than the already tight and genius-script.
It is, fundamentally, a joy, with meditations on ambition, exploitation and loneliness all delivered in a way that makes the audience genuinely empathise with the characters.
“Ellis’ text is for the most part honest and sensitive in its portrayal, highlighting the importance of seeking help”
Nathan Ellis’ new play, Super High Resolution, which follows a junior A&E doctor as she struggles to cope with the daily stressors in her professional and personal life, finds its strength in a biting wit and well-timed comedic moments. Jasmine Blackborow portrays Anna, the play’s central figure, with sharpness and dexterity. Anna is worn thin by her sister (Leah Whitaker), her demanding boss (Catherine Cusack), and a difficult patient (Hayley Carmichael), in scenes that are equal parts pacey and tense. Director Blanche McIntyre gives these scenes space to breathe, allowing humour to seep into the play’s pervasive darkness and unease.
Andrew D Edwards’ set, in conjunction with Prema Mehta’s lighting design, creates a cold and impersonal environment. In the opening stage picture, harsh neon light washes over accordions of hospital curtains, lending the impression of metal shipping containers. The stagecraft feels appropriate in light of the continual gutting of the NHS.
It is a shame then, that to me, it feels Super High Resolution misses the mark in its handling of themes of suicide and self-harm.
I want to be clear that the production got a lot of things right. Its content warnings were detailed and clear, and the resources it lists on the play’s promotional material, both for mental health services and NHS workers, are extensive (these are shown at the end of this review). Super High Resolution does not seek to romanticise suicide either, and Ellis’ text is for the most part honest and sensitive in its portrayal, highlighting the importance of seeking help. The production, however, loses sight of this sensitivity and falls out of step with Samaritans’ guidelines in its depiction of a suicide attempt onstage. Not only is the method clearly portrayed, but the scene is noticeably drawn out, and its accompanying lighting and sound design make clear that it is intended to be the play’s climax.
In my opinion, this framing crosses a line. The play would have, in all likelihood, maintained its emotional impact without an onstage depiction, or a climactic attempt altogether. In addition, the theme of suicide (and descriptions/depictions therein) seems to be buttressing a play about the gutting of the NHS and the toll it has taken on medical professionals, not the other way around.
There is obviously a spectrum of opinions on how suicide should be handled in the medium of live performance, and Super High Resolution is far from the worst offender. It is clear that Ellis, McIntyre and the rest of the production team care about the issue, and that the play does not solely seek to cash in on shock value. But the play could have, and should have, approached the issue with more caution and sensitivity.
If SUPER HIGH RESOLUTION has affected you, the following resources are available; we encourage you to make use of them.
Clicking each logo will take you to the relevant website
You can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email [email protected] or visit some branches in person.
If you’re experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, you can call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day)
Offers a supportive listening service to anyone with thoughts of suicide. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK on 0800 689 5652 (open 24/7)
You can call the CALM on 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day) if you are struggling and need to talk. Or if you prefer not to speak on the phone, you could try the CALM webchat service.
If you would prefer not to talk but want some mental health support, you could text SHOUT to 85258. Shout offers a confidential 24/7 text service providing support if you are in crisis and need immediate help.
If you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm and bank holidays 2pm–10pm), email [email protected] or text 07786 209 697.
For NHS workers
Wellbeing support by text for health and social care staff
All NHS staff can access free support by text 24/7. Text FRONTLINE to 85258 to talk by text with a trained volunteer.
Wellbeing support by telephone for health and social care staff
NHS staff in England can call 0800 069 6222 and NHS staff in Wales can call 0800 484 0555, daily from 7am–11pm.
Counselling and trauma phone helpline
Call 0300 303 4434, free and in confidence, 8am to 8pm 7 days a week.
Practitioner Health have teamed up with SHOUT to create a confidential 24/7 text service for PH patients. If you need support after hours you can Text NHSPH to 85258.
Practitioner Health is a free, confidential NHS primary care mental health and addiction service with expertise in treating health & care professionals.