Contact Theatre, Manchester
13 May 2016 to 14 May 2016
Funnily enough upon hearing the title of Cheryl Martin’s solo play, Alaska, I instinctively identified the Velvet Underground song from which it was taken. Come to that I could identify most of the references in the show including X-Men characters and Moonbase Alpha from Space 1999. Which is a bit worrying as Alaska chronicles Cheryl Martin’s lifelong struggle with severe depression.
Although harrowing at times Alaska is by no means dour. Director Darren Pritchard sets a suitably intimate atmosphere for such an intense and deeply personal show. A very limited audience joins Martin in a posh penthouse flat off Whitworth Street (who knew such places existed?). Martin holds court describing her ideal gig, singing her favourite songs, quoting her poetry and taking us through key parts of her life. She does not make things easy on herself. The songs are performed without benefit of musical backing to set the key but Martin sings them note perfect.
The manner of presentation is disconcerting. Martin hands out playing cards to patrons and goes on to explain the very personal significance of the illustrations – the hospital where she received treatment, her catholic upbringing and so on.
Alaska swings from the disturbing to the darkly humourous. Martin had suicidal tendencies from age eight and weeps as she recalls she only ceased attempting to end her life when she experienced the pain of learning a friend had actually succeeded in committing suicide. She was an overachiever in university with high academic and sporting scores. Ironically one of the reasons Martin was released from institutional care was that the high standard of her achievements made her the obvious student to greet Queen Elizabeth who was visiting the university.
Alaska makes starkly clear the frightening illogical reasoning that mental illness provokes in sufferers. Prone to massive panic attacks and immune to most medications Martin recalls turning to self-harm or offering herself as a test subject for medical experiments in a desperate attempt to secure relief. Martin suffered a seizure after one faddish treatment involved abstaining from caffeine for a month then absorbing the equivalent of ten cups of coffee.
Alaska is a study of survival against great odds. Although Cheryl Martin does not set out to paint herself as a heroine, one cannot help but admire someone who displays such grace and charm under immense pressure.
Reviewer: David Cunningham