Set in the smoking area of a psychiatric hospital, Serotonin sees Jack (Millin Thomas), Alfie (Teddy Robson) and Sarah (Billy Madden) in a journey through depression, alcohol, mental health, spirituality and suicide. Playwright and actor Millin Thomas alternates spoken word poetry and articulate prose to create a poignant, beautifully delivered and thought-provoking piece of theatre.

Initially hesitant to give in to the facility’s methods, Jack finds himself on an expedition to recover from more than alcoholism. As the audience learns at the heart of the show, his breakdown was kickstarted by an attempted suicide. After a failed interview at McDonald’s (to which he’d shown up drunk) he attempts to “help the world get rid of [him]” by trying to overdose. In his drunken state, he calls Sarah, a nurse he had met in a pub not long before and whose training ends up saving his life. Hereditary alcoholism, abuse and people’s carelessness lead him to a stage of deep depression and self-sabotage. Starting  his recovery as a convinced fatalist, he learns that he is his own enemy. “Sounds like the only person who hates you is you”. Alfie points out earlier in the play – he is partially right.

The themes of ownership and acceptance of one’s emotions are at the core of the piece. Alfie has to conciliate his sexuality and the hyper-masculine world he lived in before checking in the clinic, not helped by his severe bipolar disorder; Sarah is coming to terms with her brother’s death by helping others; Jack is trying to make something of himself after having been belittled and neglected, his depression gorgeously described as “an illness of perception”.

Death is another of the leitmotifs that run through the play: from Jack’s attempt to other events happening in its course, the end of a life is treated very naturally and quite candidly by the playwright, but not without making its consequences clear and unveiling the tragic aftermaths for those who remain. Jack is scarred by his mother’s death, so he copes with feeling trapped in his own head by writing. It is his art that initially brings him closer to Alfie, dragging him out of his own thoughts and creating a tender and supportive friendship, free of the highs and lows typical of mental health issues.

Thomas’ poetry is rich and highly visual, melodic and resonant in its depth. The rhythmic and musically fluid quality of his style echoes throughout the show: witty and fast verses are a mirror to his character’s cumbersome reflections and their intricacy mimics the gears spinning in his brain; more cadenced and less refined rhymes are distinctive of Alfie, whose internal monologue sounds more like hip-hop lyrics. Both are in contrast to Sarah’s scientific and rationally intense speech that never spills into poetry. Words define and describe the nature of these characters and end up being Jack’s way out. Though the nurse’s encouragement to talk & explain the way he feels and what he thinks the reasons must be, the protagonist kicks off achingly acute observations on illness, addiction, and the world.

Under Rowan Jacobs’ sharp direction, the cast of Serotonin are heartbreakingly real – the inventive first scene is held at the second bar of the venue with the audience standing in a crescent around Thomas and Madden. The spectator becomes a voyeur to Jack’s issue, witnessing the beginning of the climax that will lead him into Alfie and the nurse’s life. Madden’s strong and positive personality are marred by the remnants of guilt and probable self-hatred, making her the less-than-perfectly-healthy person everyone thinks she is.

Robson’s lovable portrayal of Alfie is touching, his comedic timing and sudden dips into his character’s bipolar attacks generate an unconditional care on behalf of the audience. His refusal to accept his own feelings become advice to Jack to be kinder to himself. He incessantly tries to “be normal”, going at lengths to bring alcohol to his (probably only) friend, which then makes him feel utterly terrible. Robson presents Alfie as a loving and affectionate man whose disorder doesn’t allow him to show his potential as a human being. Besides being a skilled writer, whose prose and verse are equally flourishing, witty, charming, and fascinatingly constructed, he is a splendidly elegant actor. There is certainly a glint of Hamlet in Thomas’ performance, his introspection as central a character as himself in a well-rounded performance which not only displays his acting but paints him with all his strengths.

A piece of theatre ready to open up a discussion, Serotonin excels in championing awareness regarding mental health and suicide. Thomas keeps his eyes on the story throughout his sensitive — yet painfully accurate — representation of depression, never straying from his natural inclination to be a storyteller, thus imbuing his work with thematic relevance rather than making it plainly about an agenda.

 

★★★★☆

Serotonin plays The Water Rats until 16 August 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets for other shows in the Camden Fringe, click here.