Today, deteriorating mental health is spoken about far more often than it used to be, which is a good thing, but what does it look like up close and personal? Based on her own experiences, Chelsea Plumley’s insightful work takes us there.
41-year-old Shelley (Petra Glieson) is quite a handful. She always has been. She has three children, but isn’t capable of looking after them. From a young age she has been hearing voices – one dark, sexually provocative gnawing voice, in particular, that frequently provokes and deeply distresses her. In short, Tina (Jessica Faulkner) has been doing Shelley’s head in.
In Shelley’s corner is her younger sister Sam (Tanya Schneider), who does everything she can to help bat away the demons. That comes at the expense of her own marriage and kids. The problem is notwithstanding Sam’s efforts, Shelley won’t get better if she isn’t prepared to help herself … and she isn’t. Their mum (Michele Stayner) has been left to look after Shelley’s three children and she has had enough of her “histrionics”.
Shelley’s brother Ben (Anthony Scundi) is also ready to step back from Shelley’s dramas. And now Shelley’s youngest child, Tommy (Jasper McDonald Parsons), is having his own mental health issues. Further, Sam is far from convinced that new age health guru Sage (Angela Kennedy), who Shelley has been seeing, is doing her sister any good. Confrontation follows.
Beautiful Highness is a deeply affecting, heartfelt, slice of life piece that opens the door to one of society’s most potent issues. It transported me to the heart of the problem (in this case schizophrenia) and presented the dilemma of how best to treat it. I felt I was there, batting for Shelley, but losing the fight. It is dramatic, confronting and sad, but the play also has several lighter, laugh aloud scenes.
Three of the actors fill multiple roles. I was taken by Glieson’s scary performance as a woman possessed. Schneider is convincing as the empathetic, but increasingly frustrated, care giver. Stayner is stoic as the mother who tries to distance herself. Kennedy has fun with her role as a spiritual advisor. Scundi makes for a convincing policeman (one of his personas). He also expresses the understandable frustration of a sibling who was brought up with the lion’s share of attention devoted to his troubled sister.
Jessica Faulkner’s boogieman representation adds another layer to the production, a sharp contrast to her turn as buoyant in-patient Angie. Jasper McDonald Parsons, who alternates his role as Tommy with Alistair Herbert, transitions Shelley’s son from “going with the flow” to tortured. Set and costume designer Christina Logan-Bell has created a simple but eye-catching set. Composition and sound designer James Roche impresses by capturing the eerie and troubling voices that plague Shelley.
I was genuinely moved by Beautiful Highness, although I was somewhat concerned by the preachiness that infiltrated some of the dialogue. While I understand why the work moved in the direction it did, as it drew to a conclusion, I felt it would have benefitted from an ambiguous ending. I say that because all too often the result of mental illness remains unforgiving. Directed by Sara Grenfell, with dramaturgy from Peter Houghton, Beautiful Highness is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 28th May, 2023.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Unsolicited Male (Chapel Off Chapel) – theatre review
- Music (MC Showroom) – theatre review
- Driftwood: The Musical (Chapel off Chapel) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.