This experimental, deeply affecting piece of gig theatre is striking in both its imaginative breadth, and the delivery of its message, keeping me rapt. Valerie seamlessly mixes interdisciplinary elements, a heightened cabaret style, stylised narration, performers stepping in and out of character and imaginative visuals to tell the story of Valerie, writer and performer Robin Kelly’s grandmother.
Presented as a woman of huge resilience, in meeting her eventual husband Graham, Valerie marries in to a family beset by a host of mental health difficulties. Characterised as fragile ‘spinning plates’ which Graham tries to keep from falling; the family suffer from schizophrenia, psychosis and seemingly much in between, with a mother referred to as ‘Welc’ short for ‘welcome mat’ so named for her predilection to lay across the kitchen floor. Immediate questions around nature versus nuture and genetic influence and fate are raised: will Graham, and subsequently, his grandson Robin escape, and how?
Benjamin Henson’s precise direction frames the performance as a live gig. We enter to a traditional three-piece band set up, with the requisite dry ice, a soundcheck in progress. Lead singer (and later main actor of the piece) Cherie Moore is immediately incredibly powerful and confident, performing vocal gymnastics with precision and raw emotion. The audience are given some sense of ownership of the production from the start through the powerful device of recording us singing a few basic notes, these then looped and played under the lead vocals, adding emotion.
However, these slick production values are quickly disrupted by mess and struggle, for of course mental health issues are not neat and easy to understand. This is poignantly illustrated by Kelly who tries to lecture us about genetic mutations, but can’t quite speak into a mic constantly, being moved around by Moore. Cables are wound loosely round his neck, added to throughout. These lightly disrupt his words, a visual representation of his complex family history and his own mental health battles weighing him down.
Through song, narration, flashbacks and the reading out of past correspondence, we are immersed in to Valerie’s world of increasing chaos; we are shown Graham beginning to shatter, Valerie all the while trying to hold his pieces together. This challenge is huge; as Valerie tries out different versions of her life’s story (what would have happened if she had married her first boyfriend instead of Graham, for example) each time her attempt to construct her narrative is disrupted by Graham loudly creating feedback with a microphone. She is forced to try again, but ultimately everything she tries is wrong, there is only noise and chaos where resolution should have been.
The most affecting moment for me came towards the end; with a visceral honesty that seems almost to drain him dry, Robin steps forward and comments on the effects of this specific genetic legacy on himself,. The feeling of ‘noise and pressure and grinding teeth’ that rarely leaves him symbolises his own battles with depression, and he confesses movingly that he still has to listen to Harry Potter audio books just to be able to sleep. Finally, he begins to sing, with none of Moore’s polished finesse, but with a quiet and breath-taking voice-cracking intensity. There follows a very satisfying call back, hearing our own singing, again been looped underneath Kelly’s. The production ends on a hopeful note; a celebration of Valerie’s strength. Yet this is bittersweet framed as it is by Kelly’s clear and on-going struggles, making this is vital, gut-wrenching work. Delivered in ways that consistently surprise and engage, Valerie left me stunned, and I’m still now processing the impact.