Fringe theatre is inherently tricky — how does one package a complex, endlessly nuanced issue such as millennial mental health, into a single hour? More to the point, how can it be done meaningfully and authentically? The age of the internet is also becoming the age of the mind, with a proliferation of digital platforms from which all sorts of people can lay bare their experiences and extend a virtual hand of solidarity to others in the same rocky boat. Mental health is everyone’s issue, but with the internet acting as the ultimate stock exchange for narratives of emotional, mental, and physical challenges, millennials are certainly experiencing it in a unique way: maniacally aspirational commercial copy and ominous news stories sit oddly alongside fond, rose-tinted strolls down memory (read: Disney) lane and a recycled series of throwbacks to the 90s. Fridge, written by and starring Emma Zadow, produced by Pippa Davies, and directed by Tonje Wik Olaussen, dives into this timely and promising milieu, but at points its focus strays in too many directions to fully deliver on such promise.
Alice (Zadow) hasn’t been home to rural Norfolk for over six years, driven out by a compulsion to get away and find meaning and momentum in London. Her little sister, Lo (Mary O’Loan), makes a suicide attempt in her absence; suddenly Alice is duty-bound to return, not only to the hometown she loathes, but to the role of second mother to Lo – their real matriarch having jetted off on holiday with the latest in a string of boyfriends. While waiting in vain for a country bus, Alice runs into Charlie (Leo Garrick), a school friend who becomes more mixed up in her and Lo’s life than any of them could possibly have expected.
In case you were wondering, yes, an actual fridge does feature — I watched it getting wheeled in through the King’s Head pub into the separate, entirely self-sufficient theatre at the back. In a powerful opening the extremely troubled Lo, curls up inside the appliance, pressing her limbs against its arctic, plastic corners, miserably waiting for the battle inside her brain to cease. When sprinkled through the dialogue as a metaphor, however, the cast and crew arguably milk said fridge for more than it’s worth:
Lo: “You didn’t even leave a farewell message with the fridge magnets!”
Alice: “You did always love those.”
The same goes for the theme of ambivalence about 90s Renaissance Disney film-imbued nostalgia: a fraught discussion between Charlie, Alice, and Lo plays out heavy-handedly to the point of sardonic preachiness, and a sufficiently awkward date scene between Alice and Charlie puts an unrealistic amount of emphasis on just how much their craving for childhood comfort permeates their lives (Charlie’s idea of an appropriate date is to “finish this strawberry Yazoo and watch a Disney movie”). In trying to connect with a millennial audience via a shared affection for Disney films, David Attenborough documentaries, CD players and chocolate bourbons, Fridge falls into an unfortunate habit of making thematic vessels of its characters at the expense of weaving realistic, unique personalities. I suspect that this recurring sense of playing to the crowd has come from a well-intentioned attempt at resonating with as many members of the millennial demographic as possible (an important aim, as removing the taboo around discussing mental health is something to which theatre can and should contribute), but it comes at the unfortunate cost of authenticity and makes the characters hard to relate to as human beings.
Unchecked mental illness left, as it does in Lo, to fester and corrupt every moment from the inside out, lends itself to a significant degree of voyeurism. Mental illnesses connote invisibility, silence, and expert concealment, as most of the decline and destruction takes place internally; any external symptoms, like the tip of an iceberg, pale in comparison to what lies beneath. On stage, streams of consciousness must be externalised, manifested in large expressions of anger, whether at oneself or at those who offer to help. Staging mental health narratives thus carries an inherent risk of over-externalising, making characters’ reactions too violent, until we shoot past empathy and wind up with alienation.
A later scene between Charlie and Lo, in which they spontaneously re-enact part of The Little Mermaid, elicits some hearty laughs from the audience, but ends with Lo screaming, wrecking furniture, and collapsing in Charlie’s arms. Even for her character, it’s close to gratuitous in how jarring it is. Lo certainly comes off as someone so damaged that she can’t break through the ceiling of her toxic childhood, but when the plot calls for such extreme outbursts, the voyeuristic element arguably risks creating a rift between the audience rather than drawing them in.
On another note, credit is due to Garrick for putting in a charming, instantly likable performance as Alice’s estranged school friend Charlie. But in an hour-long play, his character is ultimately an unnecessary third element that distracts from and complicates Alice and Lo’s main arc towards reconciliation, in a way that the play simply doesn’t have time to do justice in exploring. With an extra hour, or even just thirty minutes, I’m confident that Fridge’s chilling dive into estranged family relationships and the loneliness of mental illness would have had greater room to flourish. It could have been set in a single room, as an extended, escalating, and explosive dialogue between Alice and Lo as their agonies bubble to the surface. In its current incarnation, particularly with an unclear time lapse between Alice’s arrival and the open-ended conclusion, Charlie’s feelings – and Alice’s reciprocation of them – develop much too quickly and too intensely to be plausible.
Apart from the encumbrance of Charlie’s character, Fridge could easily have done without the numerous lyrical soliloquies amongst the cast. The numerous poetic embellishments clash with the minimalist set, flat Norfolk setting and casual, prosaic conversation that otherwise fills the stage. It’s as if the creative team felt obliged to tick some “spoken word” box in order to give the audience a quintessentially experimental Fringe experience, further amplifying the general feeling that the topic of mental health has been approached admirably, but not handled sensitively enough. Unfortunately, instead of a genuine glimpse into the protagonists’ motivations, we get an air of faux-profundity.
Fridge has some powerful and charming moments, which I hope that Blackout Creative Arts will build on for future productions. The original music by Phoebe Robinson is pensive and mellow, reminiscent of Lauren Aquilina and Birdy. Our introduction to Alice and Charlie (their re-introduction to each other) is witty and down-to-earth, effortlessly turning an upturned box into a urine-soaked bus shelter in the middle of unromanticised green pastures. Fridge’s sense of humour is at is best when it’s self-aware and sharp-tongued:
Lo, huddled alone in a field: “Shut up! I’m having a moment.”
Charlie, hovering: “…So, do you want me to go or not? Have you had a moment now?”
On the more intense side, Lo’s monologue (one of many) in which she recounts her suicide attempt in a coconut bubble bath, with “Part of Your World” playing in the background, is as engrossing as it is harrowing. O’Loan deserves a special shout-out for physically immersing herself in this difficult, thorny and demon-plagued character as deeply and compulsively as Lo immerses herself in cold, watery spaces, with enormous eyes that command attention long after the sinister voices in her head have died down.
Fridge is an intriguing, frustrating, and compelling play. It sets out to be “a culmination piece of nostalgia, growing up and millennial mental illness” and, while it does deliver this, it’s a shame that delivery feels so rushed, and that with a more minimal, introspective plot, this difficult subject matter could have been handled more carefully.
Fridge was performed in July 2017 as part of the Kings’s Head Festival 47.