Electrolyte tells the story of Jessie from Leeds who is dealing with the recent suicide of her father.
She meets singer-songwriter Allie Touch, who is pursuing her music career in London. Allie’s outlook inspires Jessie, who feels intensely oppressed by her life in Leeds.
Impulsively, she follows Allie to London in pursuit of her mother, who left when she was young. However, when she arrives in London things aren’t quite as shiny as they seemed and the answers she seeks are buried deeper than she could ever have imagined.
Directed by Olivier award-winning director Donnacadh O’Briain and written by James Meteyard, the company scooped the Mental Health Fringe Award and the Pleasance Best Newcomer Award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Now the show is coming here as part of this year’s Portsmouth Festivities.
James explains the idea behind the show: ‘I wrote this just over two years ago – mental health has affected my life in lots of different ways. I’ve had friends with suffered from depression and anxiety, friends who had bipolar and someone who was close in my life who went through a psychotic episode.
‘Witnessing that made me realise the power of the mind and the brain, but also the importance of togetherness and community in recovery.’
James wrote the piece with Olivia Sweeney in mind for the role of Jessie – and it was her cajoling that got him to the finish line.
‘I very much bounced it off of Liv for about six months – I actually gave up about four times, but she kept texting me asking, what about that play? I’d say I’d fallen out of love with it, it’s not working, she’d read it and say it’s great, so I’d carry on.’
The six-strong cast, also includes James and Maimuna Memon, who wrote the show’s music.
‘I knew I wanted it to be a band telling a story – a piece of gig theatre, but Donnacadh managed to pull out a sense of playful joy that you get when watching a band – particularly a new band.’
Explaining the show he says: ‘It’s like a concept album, a band telling a story. It’s all underscored by live music and it’s written as spoken word poetry – it’s quite lyrical, but it has a very strong narrative, so that’s the theatrical element.
‘It takes you through all sorts of musical genres, like house and drum and bass all the way to folk, classical, rock – it’s a really eclectic score. And each of those pieces exists to further the narrative and support the lead performance by Liv, who basically tells the audience the story.’
The show got off to a rocky star on its Fringe run, with James fearing for the state of their finances.
‘We were kind of naive. We borrowed money from a lot of people, and I put in money myself.
‘The scary part was show number three where we had eight people in the audience and I thought we were going to lose a lot of money. But word of mouth travelled, the festival picked up, the reviews started coming out and all of a sudden we started having these amazing full houses.
‘Liv became semi-famous – she couldn’t walk through Edinburgh without people stopping her and saying how amazing she was.
‘It was a really bizarre experience, going from this unknown show to this polar opposite where you’re the toast of the town. It was a microcosm of how quickly this can happen. The awards and the reviews are lovely, but the most important thing is the audience. There was a standing ovation every night, and people were in tears, and wanting to share their experiences with mental health.
‘In all of the logistics of trying to get the show up there, I’d forgotten why I’d written it. You kind of compartmentalise it, and then all of a sudden people were coming up to me and saying this happened to me and that happened to my brother or whatever. All of a sudden we had a queue of people outside every night wanting to debrief with us in a way about how much it resonated with them.’
Is there a sense of catharsis from people in the audience?
‘Yeah, that’s happened a lot. We’ve had people who’ve been through PTSD or a kind of psychosis themselves who have brought their parents or family members along to see the show and go: “Look, this is close to what happened to me,” as a way of starting the conversation with them around it.
‘That’s more than I could ever have dreamed of, really.’
And it’s not just from the audience but also fellow performers.
‘The response from the industry has been extraordinary because a lot of people will have had some experience themselves, or be open to it, even if it’s not as far as a psychotic breakdown.
‘Artists put themselves on the line day in day out, and they’re constantly faced with all sorts of things, rejection and disappointment, and that can be stressful.’
After this UK tour Electrolyte returns to Edinburgh for another run this summer, but James is already working on his next show, another piece of gig theatre.
‘This one’s a hip-hop gig about the music industry and particularly the exploitation of young women in the music industry, and that’s semi-based on a true story.’
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Saturday, June 22