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A CurtainUp London London Review
Polar Bears

I'm the person holding the bottom of the kite string. — John
Polar Bears
Richard Coyle as John
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Polar Bears is Mark Haddon's first play and it is as remarkable as his prize winning novel The Curious Incident of the Little Dog in the Night-Time which was about a boy with Asperger's Syndrome. Jodhi May is an actor who has such a sensitive range that she is a natural casting choice depicting women with complex mental health issues. She plays Kay, a young woman who is intelligent and witty when she is animated and yet has periods of inaccessibility and terrible depression.

In Mark Haddon's play there are no health professionals, no psychiatrist, therapist or counsellor, just her family. Kay's illness is vaguely referred to as "a disease" but she is bi-polar, the current name for manic depression. We do hear later however that she has not been taking her medication.

Haddon's structure is to move around out of chronological time order and his narrative is fractured, contradictory and at times mystifyingly incoherent which makes for a less comfortable and explicable theatrical experience. The narrator is John (Richard Coyle), Kay's understanding and loving husband and teacher of philosophy. As a philosopher he tells us that philosophy is about the possibility that you might be wrong and so it is with Polar Bears.

The opening scene puzzles us as John is telling Kay's brother Sandy (Paul Hilton) that he has murdered her and her body is in the cellar. But later Kay phones in the most excited and charming way from Oslo where she says she is having a wonderful time. Slowly it dawns that some of these scenes are fantasy — but which?

Maybe with this play we need to question everything that we hear because it may not be true. This seems to be confirmed when we meet Jesus (David Leon) in conversation with Kay. We have some glimpses of Kay's childhood with her brother Sandy through accounts from their mother Margaret (Celia Imrie) who talks about Kay's moods.

There is another illustration through one of Kay's stories for children, about a pair of twins, a little girl and a monster. We first think that her brother Sandy might be that monster, especially after the scene from their childhood where he makes Kay stand on a chair with her head in a rope noose and read out their father's suicide note. Their father was found having committed suicide hanging from the banisters. His father before him died an unnatural death. There is of course another explanation which is that the monster is another aspect of Kay's fractured psyche.

There are clues to as to the possible reason for Kay's condition with hints at abusive relationships in her childhood. The Jesus figure gives a long and stomach churning description of the putrefaction of a corpse but I'm not sure why.

The performances are excellent. Celia Imrie's vague, defensive mother, Paul Hilton's stiff, suited, hard businessman, Richard Coyle's patient carer and lifeline and of course the wonderful Jodhi May as Kay, charismatic, beautiful, creative and very bright, until the darkness comes when she becomes unreasonable and unmovable, raging and smashing the cup of tea John has brought to her. Jamie Lloyd creates some powerfully visual scenes from Haddon's text.

Soutra Gilmour's set has a dilapidated ceiling with torn out panels from which float down Kay's sheets of paper with her children's stories to the sound of slicing metal. Behind the bare wooden floored set there is aluminium coloured panelling but with clear sliding panels placed in front with layers of meaning.

Polar Bears has cathartic moments and some of real beauty as the play describes what it feels like to live with this illness and how very difficult it is for those close to those with bi-polar. So much of this kind of discussion of mental illness is looked at dramatically with the hemmed in conversations between a psychiatrist and his patient, that is it is refreshing to see Mark Haddon tackle the subject with something more expressionistic.

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Polar Bears
Written by Mark Haddon
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Starring: Jodhji May, Richard Coyle, Paul Hilton, Celia Imrie
With: David Leon
Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Jon Clark
Composers and Sound: Ben and Max Ringham
Running time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7624
Booking to 22nd May 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 10th April 2010 matinee performances at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube:Covent Garden)

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