My Shrinking Life – an alternative review

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Alison Peebles in My Shrinking Life. Photo: National Theatre of Scotland
Alison Peebles in My Shrinking Life. Photo: National Theatre of Scotland

My Shrinking Life

The Byre Theatre

***

Quite ashamedly, before my visit to the Byre to see “My Shrinking Life”, I had forged in my mind pretty drab expectations. I was, indeed, under the false impression that a piece of theatre concerning a debilitating illness such as multiple sclerosis, starring the afflicted herself, would inevitably display the symptoms of a self-pitying deprecation and the opening twenty minutes seemed to prove my assumptions. The dubious attempt at philosophy with questions such as “Am I real?” served only to cause mild humour. Alongside this, the patronising display of stereotypes encountered by those with disabilities seemed particularly flimsy.

However, it became apparent that Peebles has the authority to discuss these concepts, which are her norm, through the medium of her art form. Furthermore her wealth of experience as a notable actress and the wisdom she has acquired throughout her dynamic life enabled her to draw the eccentric out of the everyday and entertain us with the uncomfortable.

Throughout the production a multitude of issues were addressed – in no way was the script purely about MS. Rather, the audience was forced to question its stance on topics such as sexuality, age, disease and the ‘realness’ of theatre as an artistic medium itself. Peebles emphasised how her illness has forced her to address the aforementioned subjects– perhaps before she was comfortable to do so. My Shrinking Life demonstrates how disease does not wait for the ‘right moment’ to strike; the sudden disarray of a life disrupted by MS is portrayed with the flinging of emotions around the stage, with characters screeching and moaning about their sense of dismay.

A small cast of actors represented shards of Peebles’ soul, almost like a live art installation. The raw, wrought emotions onstage were displayed in a somewhat surreal manner – flitting from scene to scene with no interval, so that after two hours one exits the theatre exhausted but exhilarated.

Using the medium of dance, the play demonstrates the physical and mental convulsions experienced by a patient of multiple sclerosis. The rapid transitions of the characters’ movements, from agile waltzes to jittery hobbling, portrayed the fragility of human strength. Peebles managed to sustain her own character as melancholic and cynical, with a sly, knowing smile throughout the performance. What is perhaps most disturbing is the lack of facade in this display of Peebles’ life – even she seemed baffled and exhausted by the extreme exposure that occurred onstage. Her injections of dark humour are probably what made the depressing nature of the play bearable.

“My Shrinking Life” is a disorganised dance through Alison Peebles’ life and how she exists both as a “glorified actress” and an “ordinary woman.” It is her traits as the latter that make this piece of theatre interesting – the commonplace comments on fame and the media are nothing original. The set design and music were well tailored to the script. During the closing scenes, Peebles’ brave admittance of the fact that she is “not unhappy just not happy” leaves the audience with a trace of optimism that is well deserved after the emotional chaos that encompasses the rest of the play.

Here’s what Emma Moore had to say about My Shrinking Life.

 

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