Reviewed – 1st November 2019
“two very good performances are somewhat undermined by an overly long script”
Jacob Marx Rice’s Chemistry is revived at the Finborough Theatre this month. Originally produced in New York in 2013, director Alex Howarth brings this modern story of star-crossed lovers across the pond to London.
Steph suffers from chronic depression. She’s very glib about the number of times she’s tried to kill herself. Jamie has always been an incredibly high achiever, working himself to the breaking point. When he finally does break, he’s diagnosed with a rare disorder called unipolar mania. Steph and Jamie meet in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. As their casual dating deepens into real love, Steph tries to throw on the brakes – how can they take care of each other when they struggle to take care of themselves?
Howarth’s set is unusual. A large metal rectangle, suspended waist-high in the air, frames the stage, significantly reducing the Finborough’s already small performance space. Presumably the intention is to manifest the confinement of an ill mind, as the two characters never leave this highly restricted area until the final scenes. Beneath the metal frame, tracing the same rectangle, is a mass of intertwined wires and lightbulbs, which suggests the complexity of the brain – its unfathomable tangles of synapses and neurons. Oddly, and perhaps unnecessarily, the performers use microphones for narration, and set them aside for dialogue.
Caoimhe Farren brings admirable genuineness to the depressive Steph. She’s in turn detached, intense, caustic, and vulnerable. James Mear is appropriately high-strung as the manic Jamie. They play their opposed psychologies off of each other well, and do an impressive job negotiating the tight space. However, two very good performances are somewhat undermined by an overly long script. At ninety minutes, Rice’s play is at least half an hour too long. Lengthy monologues, extraneous scenes, and repeated ideas all point to an urgent need for an editor. It’s a slow play, and the overstuffed script makes it feel slower. It’s a shame, because Rice has written some immensely interesting conversations about mental health, and succeeded in portraying depression with authenticity, insight, and unaffected empathy.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was huge the year Chemistry was first staged, and it’s clear the play absorbed whatever was in the air at the time. Rice’s script repeatedly drifts into teenage melodrama, which feels a bit maudlin now. It’s unfortunate that Howarth and lighting designer Rachel Sampley have chosen to push the show further into the saccharine rather than pull it back: warm lights glow in the dark while Sufjan Stephens plays as the fated lovers try to savour their time together.
Chemistry provides a fascinating window into two characters’ unique battles with mental health. Even now in 2019, six years after the play was written, mental illnesses are still so misunderstood. It’s a highly relevant, excellently performed piece that’s in need of cutting and trimming.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Claire Bilyard
Finborough Theatre until 23rd November
Previously reviewed at this venue: