The subject of mental health has thankfully become a major conversation in our daily lives over the past few years. And so it is pleasing to see a new play which centers on that very subject but presented with wit, empathy and most importantly for us, a star performance.
In the programme notes, Philip Meeks (author of Harpy) admits that the story of Birdie is based on a lady about town in his London ghetto. Birdie is a hoarder. She collects things. Unfortunately that includes Jehovah's witnesses in her box room. And so we enter Birdie's world. A living room set of salvage and random objects which reflects both her physical and mental make-up. Alex Marker's set design gives us just enough of Birdie's cluttered world, without making it a distracting element. Her social worker Featherstone enlists the help of young mother Mattie, a seemingly sympathetic soul, to help Birdie towards the ultimate goal - getting rid of some of the mess of objects and ephemera that threaten to overwhelm the house. Birdie has rejected all help offered so far, but something about Mattie strikes a chord with Birdie which links to traumatic events in her past...
With a one person show, you need a strong performer. And so it is lucky that the producers have secured the services of showbiz legend Su Pollard, sans her famous eccentric colourful garb and glasses, and successfully transformed into a cardiganed and somewhat dour Birdie. The fact that she delivers Birdie's comedy lines with precision is no surprise, but exploring Birdie's darker side finds Pollard in less familiar territory but she tackles it head on. The telling of a sexual assault is typical of the bravery of the writing and performing. Playing what would perhaps be termed a society misfit brings out the very best in Pollard, darting between madcap moments when she sings Bananarama karaoke-style via a makeshift microphone of kitchen roll tube and tennis ball to the real fear of being stalked by her neighbours' husband whom has a fixation on her. Or at least that is the way she tells it.
Director Abigail Anderson is adept at blurring the lines between what might have happened and the version of events in Birdie's disturbed mind. As we delve further into her dark past, Su Pollard delivers a bravura performance of vulnerability. This could be a woefully sad tale but for the sheer life enhancing energy of its performer. There is something wholly wonderful watching her inhabit the ups and downs of Birdie's life. As Birdie clutches the ashes of her despised Aunt Maureen, there is a little bit of all of us in this character. Su makes us love Birdie for all her faults, and that is the success of the evening. We embrace and celebrate the non-perfect. It is a mirror for us all.
A standing ovation seemed very appropriate as Su Pollard took her bow. The character of Birdie might not be as well known as Peggy from Hi-de-Hi! but I'll wager the performance is just as much a cornerstone of Pollard's long career. An outstanding evening of understanding.
Rob Cope for Doctor Theatre
Further information on HARPY's tour dates can be found at Something For The Weekend