Thin Toes @ Pleasance Theatre, London

cast list
Camilla Simson
Elizabeth Bichard
Helen Millar

directed by
Julia Stubbs
In her first full length play, Laura Stevens has chosen to write about eating disorders. But she has successfully avoided many of the pitfalls of making this into a piece of issue theatre. This is less a play about anorexia and more a play where one of the characters is anorexic, and it is stronger for that.

Andrea and Lucy are both studying art. Andrea is spiky and brittle, aggressive and obnoxious, but also talented. Lucy is nervous, needy, and eager to please, besotted both with Andrea and her once-famous artist mother, Meg. Andrea is the one with anorexia. At the beginning, she is a dominant presence, long limbed and quick tempered, bristling with anger, overshadowing her friend and cattily snapping at the mother with whom she has a very cold and distant relationship. But her anorexia, her inability to eat, is making her ill, and after a series of collapses, she is hospitalised, sectioned.

In Julia Stubbs intelligent production, we see Andrea reduced to a figure lying silent and supine under a sheet as life progresses without her, as an odd dependency builds between frumpy Lucy and the glamorous Meg, a one time star of the art scene for a sculpture entitled Continent of Despair, whose talent, or at least her drive to create, has abandoned her.

Stevens takes care to make each of the three women feel like whole, flawed human beings. None is particularly likeable, but they all feel real. There is humour in the writing too, as well as emotional plausibility. Some aspects of the play feel a little obvious: Lucy has lost a mother at a young age, making her attraction towards Meg more understandable, but on the whole, the piece is subtly layered, and contains a number of genuine surprises.

The performances by the trio of actresses are all equally well rounded. Camilla Simson softens the potentially glacial Meg and Elizabeth Bichards Lucy is a pleasingly complex character. Theres something desperate in her loyalty; shes a lesser talent than either Meg or Andrea and seems painfully aware of it. Initially she comes across as Andreas sweetly frumpy friend, a familiar figure, but her behaviour becomes clingier and more obsessive as the play progresses. As Andrea, Helen Miller actually has the least to do, and several of her scenes involve her sitting in a night gown looking ethereal and pale. But she still manages to make an impression, to escape clich.

Thin Toes is being staged in the smaller of the two performance spaces at the Pleasance and the walls of the theatre have been decorated with a series of empty picture frames; its a rare moment of heavy-handedness in a play that is refreshingly layered and ambiguous. The play offers no pat reasons for Andreas anorexia; her relationship with her mother is offered as one of many factors rather than an outright cause.

Stevens cant avoid all the narrative pitfalls that come with tackling such subject matter, but the play has far more to it than the premise suggests and Stevens has set herself up as a writer worth watching.

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