‘Women Laughing’ highlights the taboos still surrounding mental health today
“I don’t think people mind paying extra if they know they’re getting good quality. I mean, I think that’s why Labour lost the last election.” Michael Wall wrote Women Laughing in the year Margaret Thatcher won her third term in office, after a campaign that emphasized lowering taxes and strengthening the economy.
Blueprint Theatre Company are staging his arguably most successful play, 25 years after it was written. Such a revival begs the question of how far we have moved on from the England in which it was first staged, and asks whether a play that seemed just right for its time is still relevant a quarter of a century later.
The play has lived through a cycle of critical response, opening to rave reviews at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in 1992, from which it transferred to the Royal Court Theatre. Yet the handful of revivals in the late 1990s and the 2000s were less enthusiastically received.
Now, the political and economic background to the play – a black comedy about mental health problems erupting into the lives of a duo of Thatcher’s poster boys, self-made men buckling under the pressure to survive in their dog-eat-dog world – seems to have regained relevance for a contemporary audience.
In the more prosperous 1990s and early 2000s the idea that lifestyle and mental health are as finely intertwined as the play suggests was more easily dismissed. Now, with Britain in deep recession, Blueprint’s revival of Women Laughing highlights a rediscovered relevance of the taboos around mental health. The positive reception of the production, including a double nomination for an Off-West End Award, suggests a new concern with such issues, especially as services are cut, privatised, and out-sourced under economic pressure.
No reasonable person today would stigmatize those with a physical illness or disability, yet attitudes to mental illness seem hardly to have changed in 25 years, especially when the sufferers are outwardly successful high-fliers unable to cope with everyday life. One character protests profoundly when his wife describes his mental health problems as a disease: “Oh, it’s a disease now? We’d better stay clear of them; they might catch it”. His wife also observes that men are seen, generally, as not seeking treatment: “It’s just us bored old housewives as a rule”.
Sadly, we can’t ask Michael Wall how he feels about the relevance of his work today, he died in 1991, a year before Women Laughing would premiere. But perhaps a play like this needs the benefit of hindsight to cement its reputation as a piece that resists time. The more prosperous late Nineties and early Noughties had their own plays about mental health, most famously Sarah Kane’s deeply post-modern and post-dramatic 4.48 Psychosis and Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which examined the theme in the light of spin, just after New Labour’s landslide first electoral victory. Looking back, it seems obvious that this period was just not right for a revival of Michael Wall’s play.
What has remained stubbornly consistent over the last 25 years is the need for more acceptance, openness, and honesty when mental illness erupts into and disrupts everyday lives. Wall’s genius was in choosing to write Women Laughing as a comedy that invites us to laugh not at mental illness, but at the incomprehension that still surrounds it. That incomprehension is sadly the element that has dated the least.
‘Women Laughing’ runs until 27 October at the Old Red Lion TheatreTagged in: Joe Penhall, mental health, Michael Wall, New Labour, Old Red Lion Theatre, thatcher, theatre, Women Laughing
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