James Leadbitter in Mental

Edinburgh Festival Fringe Scotsman review (theatre): Mental at Pleasance Pop-Up: The Bedroom (Venue 420). Reviewed by David Pollock

James Leadbitter in Mental
[James Leadbitter’s broad experience with mental illness forms the basis for a stigma-smashing show]

Don’t be afraid, he reassures us once we’ve sat down shoeless on the cushions and he’s forced himself to rise from beneath the duvet he nests safely under. It’s all over. We’ve reached the end.

He’s about to tell us of the last 15 years of his life, and this moment – with all of us sitting safely together in this room – is the end of it so far. We’re somewhere far, far away from the festival, and it feels like sanctuary from the noise and the people.

The space is plain and modern, and it could be a bedroom in a short-let flat or a hospital room. Only the wind whistling and the trains rattling past the blacked-out windows intrude.

James Leadbitter is an artist and an activist who goes by the name of “The Vacuum Cleaner” (“cleaning up capitalism”). He’s also someone who has an extensive history with mental illness, which we know because he shows us his medical records.

He shows us the police records gathered on his campaigning activities by the Forward Intelligence Team, a unit set up to monitor political activists (these records were, he says, anything but easy to talk Scotland Yard into giving up, even under Freedom of Information law), and the documents pertaining to corporate court cases taken out against him.

Leadbitter is a handsome young guy with a hipster moustache, but appearances can be deceptive where mental illness is concerned. The story he tells is of the marginalised and dispossessed, yo-yoing between medical assessments, homeless hostels, suicidal episodes and periods of acceptance while campaigning against power plants and the third runway at Heathrow.

His delivery is warm and deliberate, unflinchingly honest and at a reserved pace which seems to be the one he feels most comfortable with. All the while he operates a set of decks alongside him, playing a backing track of upbeat disco – whether it’s to lighten his mood or ours is uncertain.

Any suggestion of exaggeration to manipulate our emotions finds itself dispelled by a chilling reveal towards the end. It’s not entertaining – of course it isn’t, it’s mental illness – but this essential show is a fascinating, stigma-smashing experience which says so much in a wider sense about the personal narrative which can be gleaned from the official forms and records scattered in our past, and why these documents should be ours alone to share as we see fit.

Until 24 August. Tomorrow 6:30pm, more info

Originally published in The Scotsman

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