As the parent of two teenagers, one in Year 13, I was looking forward to seeing what Barney Norris made of 'young people's sense of place in society in relation to mental health, rebellion and opening your A-level results'. For many months, I have heard disturbing accounts of sixth formers experiencing constant stress, pressure to outperform rival schools, widespread self-harm, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, a suicide attempt. I felt there was much to say and much to ask about these issues in a world where a school's A Level statistics can be its top priority, rather than the social, physical, emotional and psychological health of its pupils.
Every You Every Me was commissioned by Wiltshire Council and Salisbury Playhouse, who sent Barney Norris out to explore mental health in Wiltshire, touring schools and psychiatric treatment centres, collecting stories and talking to people.
I'm afraid I found the resulting play disappointing, and a sad waste of an excellent opportunity. It was not at all clear whether the two young women prevaricating over opening their results were supposed to be two separate people, two friends; or two aspects of one person; or voices in one person's head; or lots of different people. It was a mish-mash of views and experiences which did not come together to form any kind of a cohesive whole. It had no story, no direction, no drama, no message and posed no big question. At the end, the verdict of the person sitting next to me was: 'that play was a freaky mess.'
The two young women pictured their A Level results in the envelope as Schrodinger's cat in the box; the envelope was also a Pandora's box, whose contents would kill all the potential people the student could not be without the right grades, and destroy all the possible worlds in which they could live. One character told us the story of Owen Glendower/Owain Glyndwr – a rebel who never actually confronted the enemy and therefore was never defeated but never won, either. The other gave us an inconclusive account of the significance of Kurt Cobain's suicide. They lamented a 'thicket of divisions' in which overnight a 'young person' at 17 years 364 days is transformed into an 'adult' at 18. They deliberated over philosophical questions of how we experience the world and how the world exists outside our senses. They used a remote controlled helicopter as an image of mental health, and wore butter-smeared goggles to drive a remote-controlled car as a demonstration of their lack of control over their lives. They ruminated over the impossibility of opting out of society because 'by being born you've agreed to take part'.
Given the poor script, the two cast members did a wonderful job of injecting life into their characters and keeping us engaged while we were waiting to see where this play was going. The set design was excellent; a white/transparent bench on a rotating circular stage covered in jagged fragmentary reflective metal shapes (one of which covered a cubby-hole for the few props) allowing some interesting lighting effects. The final tableau was an appropriate ending, a reminder that in fact A Level results are only the first in a lifelong series of such crossroads.
The play is described as 'the start of a conversation about identity, wellbeing and coping'. My sixth form companion felt that contemporaries who had experienced mental health problems would not have found anything helpful in it, and those who had not would not find it particularly illuminating. Although we found it unstimulating, it must have enjoyed some kind of success in Wiltshire because it is now about to go on tour to Oxfordshire schools. Our local outreach workers are probably expert in using theatre in education like this to initiate useful discussion in schools – I wish them luck with this one.