by Jacob Marx Rice
The Finborough Theatre, London
Cast: Caoimhe Farron, James Mear
Set Design: Alex Howarth
Lighting Design: Rachel Sampley
Producer: Alex Howarth and Holly Robin
Images: scarab pictures
'remarkable for its tender compassion' - Michael Billington, The Guardian
★★★★★ 'It is thought-provoking and devastating as well as particularly beautiful. This is the best production I have seen all year' - Close-Up Culture
★★★★★ 'Alex Howarth has designed and directed a wonderfully sensitive, knowing, adult production. Every detail has purpose' - UK Theatre Web
★★★★ 'enthralling' -The Reviews Hub
★★★★ 'The performances are remarkable' - ReviewsGate
★★★★ 'Directed and designed by Alex Howarth with commendable fluidity, Chemistry knows how to work wonders in the constrained space of the Finborough' - The Stage
★★★★ 'immensely strong actors and direction' - Pocketsize Theatre
★★★★ 'beautiful and atmospheric...the audience leave shaken' - The Crumb
Close-Up Culture 1/11/19
CHEMISTRY is a roller coaster of a play that will tug at your emotions. Tears may flow. It’s both beautiful and poignant. There is love and loathing in equal doses, underpinned by some mighty fine acting and clever, witty writing from the pen of Jacob Marx Rice. The play, acted out within a square defined by a metal ring that intermittently lights up, pits Steph (Caoimhe Farren) against Jamie (James Mear). They meet at a psychiatrist’s office. Steph, who works in a bar, is a chronic depressive although you wouldn’t necessarily know to begin with by her chirpy demeanour. She is bubbly, flirty and fun, but demons lurk within. Jamie, a political analyst specialising in the Middle East, is more uptight, intense and a newbie to the world of psychiatry – unlike Steph who has flirted with suicide since the age of 10. Manic meets depressive. A recipe for disaster or hope?
To begin with, Jamie is cautious, but love soon blossoms. It’s beautiful to watch – and brilliantly acted. All smiles, all tenderness, and a magic When Harry Met Sally moment (move over Meg Ryan, Caoimhe Farren has arrived). Yet, as Jamie ‘recovers’ – weans himself off chemicals – and enjoys success at work, Steph slopes into an awful depression. It’s difficult to watch as Steph lies comatose waiting for the world to collapse on top of her. The end is a poignant one (pack a handkerchief or three). Confirmation that depression and mania are life sentences – permanent, not intermittent. There is no escape.
The play, acted out in a haunting mist, is imaginatively directed by Alex Howarth. It’s claustrophobic and intense – and the metal square gives the verbal sparring of Steph and Jamie a confined boxing match feel. The music, that pulls at the heartstrings, adds to the emotional overload, while the actors often use microphones to put their arguments across (a clever touch from Howarth).
Yet the real stars of Chemistry are Farren and Mear who have a genuine on-stage chemistry. Both are outstanding. The diminutive Farren is superb in transforming the ebullient Steph into a static Steph, trapped by her illness. Mear exudes love and tenderness. Kindness should be his middle name.
Chemistry is a mighty fine piece of writing (full of wit despite the rather grim subject matter) that Howarth, Farren and Mear have done justice to. A triumph.
UK Theatre Web 3/11/19
From the moment I walked in, to a smoke filled venue, I thought "this could be quality..." It did not disappoint. As my eyes adjusted, I took in the steel frame around the stage with a tangle of wires and lights underneath: a neural web. The set, sound and lighting are almost a third character in this immaculate production.
Chemistry considers mental health and the challenge when a manic and a depressive fall in love. It covers both the chemistry of the brain and the chemistry of the couple in striking scenes. I am always wary when actors use microphones in a small theatre, but here there is a point. When the characters speak their thoughts, they use the mics – another visual image of the shape of a nerve cell, with the lead trailing down like an axon into the tangle surrounding the stage. Caoimhe Farren plays Steph, who is released from her depressive tendency by her growing relationship with manic Jamie (James Mear). They make a delightful, tender odd-couple, testing the bounds of their thoughts and fears as their love grows. Neither actor holds back, there are very subtle, sexy scenes as they reveal more about themselves and embrace the healing relationship. Of course, we should not expect a happy ending…
Alex Howarth has designed and directed a wonderfully sensitive, knowing, adult production. Every detail has purpose. The actors build credible individual characters and entice the audience into their romance and despair. It is thought-provoking and devastating as well as particularly beautiful. This is the best production I have seen all year.
The Stage 3/11/19
She suffers from chronic depression; he from unipolar mania. She cannot get out of bed; he cannot stay put. She thinks mental illness is chiefly a matter of chemical imbalance; he refuses to accept he should be on medication. Jacob Marx Rice’s piercing play Chemistry tracks the increasingly intense relationship between the bartender Steph (Caoimhe Farren) and the political advisor Jamie (James Mear). They meet in a psychiatrist’s waiting room and soon become lovers desperate to help each other heal, even if their proposed methods turn out to be fundamentally different.
Steph and Jamie try to battle these differences out within a horizontal, waist-high frame suspended from above, on a floor strewn with cables and microphones. Designed and directed by Alex Howarth with commendable fluidity, Chemistry knows how to work wonders in the constrained space of the Finborough.
Howarth’s staging deploys a subtly efficient choreography, embodying this intricate relationship in dynamic ways. Rachel Sampley’s stylish lighting turns the dense smoke in the room into an ambient force that alternates between the dreamy and the nightmarish.
Farren and Mear both give sympathetic, clearly accentuated performances that throb with tender energy, conveying a fine sense of their characters’ temperamental divergences. Even as the play occasionally feels didactic and drawn-out, they handle each scene with due care and humour.
Rice has written a love story that treats heavy, complex subjects with confidence and compassion. Despite its bleak ending, there is much warmth to be found in this clear-eyed look at mental illness.