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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Breathless (Pleasance Courtyard)

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

A solo play from Laura Horton about becoming buried beneath beautiful clothes

It shouldn’t have to be said, but Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not just about being clean and tidy. Despite years of effort from mental health activists to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes, the condition remains painfully misunderstood. Thankfully, we have had works like the Chanel 4 series Pure that shed light on the diverse realities of OCD, and playwright Laura Horton’s solo show Breathless is the latest to challenge misunderstandings about the disorder. Instead of cleaning, Breathless highlights how OCD can lead to obsessive behaviour of the other extreme: hoarding.

Photo Credit: Chris Vaughan

We meet Sophie, played by Madeleine MacMohan, just at the moment when her vast collection of clothes is on the brink of destroying a promising relationship. From there we see her journey as she comes to terms with her condition, and finds a voice to talk about it. MacMohan’s performance is unexpectedly charming: her movement always appears neat and planned, her line delivery sweet and nervous. At first, her glee at finding a bargain on a beautiful dress feels like something any of us could relate to. It is only when we learn how many sacrifices she has made to buy clothes, how few of them are ever worn, and how far she has gone to stop anyone from finding out that we begin to understand the extent of the problem.

The focus of the play is less on the experience of having OCD and hoarding, but on the act of hiding it. Horton’s script does a great job of establishing Sophie as a person first, which serves as a reminder that anybody can experience mental illness and disorders and still act like themselves. Beyond OCD it also dispels misconceptions about hoarding by illustrating that Sophie’s habits stem from a love of things rather than a fear of throwing them away.

Despite how strong the themes of hoarding and OCD are, they take surprisingly long to emerge. Ultimately Sophie's feelings come tumbling out in an unspoken emotional outburst, which is a dramatic and fulfilling peak but cannot make up for the disappointing pacing that comes before it. The first third is too occupied with plot and details that don’t tell us enough about Sophie or her circumstances, and the creativity of the storytelling also leaves something to be desired. There is definitely some creative flare, such as the soundscape made up of heavy breathing and melodic “wow” sounds. However, the staging and writing are peppered with solo-show cliches like flashing back within the first five minutes and getting herbs stuck in teeth on a first date. But even so, there are gems in the script that demonstrate that Horton can combine the sensitive with the comedic and reach a wide audience in the process. Although the direction and storytelling may not offer anything that audiences haven’t seen before, Breathless still stages an entertaining, endearing, and emotional journey of self-discovery. Three stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: As a foreign visitor I thought it was really amazing and very enjoyable

Breathless will play at Pleasance Courtyard in Bunker 2 at 15:00 until August 29


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