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.
Though overreliant on a succession of mellow, romantic songs, 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.