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Meet Caroline Horton - The Woman Making Musical Comedy About Anorexia

11/07/2013 20:38 | Updated 22 May 2015

It's a musical comedy of sorts, explains the PR, "about anorexia."

The second half of the sentence clangs against the first. Anorexia is essentially a debilitating, lonely and potentially life-threatening illness. And the appeal of musical comedies is generally that they are none of these things. Yet in her play Mess, Caroline Horton brings the two together to form a poignant, honest and, yes, funny, account of her own disordered eating.

The obvious question, though, is: "When it comes to anorexia, what is there to laugh about?"

caroline horton

Horton is quick to explain that the humour comes not from the illness, but how we try to make sense of something horrible. In rehearsals, she says, "the situation began to mirror quite strongly some of the situations I'd found when I was ill - surrounded by people who wanted to connect with me but didn't know what to say, or would say the wrong thing. Everyone ends up being baffled by it."

It's the moments of trying to say the right thing - or, more often, desperately trying not to say the wrong thing - which lead to the most bizarre situations. At one point Boris (played by Hannah Boyde) is frantically trying to normalise breakfast for Josephine (played by Horton) and accidentally ends up eating the carefully dissected apple on her behalf by way of a demonstration. The sequence is laugh out loud funny for its absurdity, but also underscores the fact that logic and anorexia are infinitely less well-suited as bedfellows than anorexia and musical comedy.

Another example is when Boris makes Josephine a cake - it's absolutely tiny, as if a pair of cupcakes had a baby. The humour works because it feeds into the very human impulse to make sense of an incomprehensible situation.

"The condition creates absurd scenarios," agrees Horton. "It felt very honest in terms of the way you see people getting stuck. By using the big theatrical characters, we could create something that was warm and, in places, funny through those personas."

It's the moving scenes between laughter and moments of pathos that keeps the piece from becoming too hard to watch - too "issues-driven" - despite its sensitive subject.

"There's something really great to feel onstage when you've got the audience with you and they're following your characters, their stories and their little idiocies. Suddenly there's this silence when the real pain comes in."

And the pain does come in - this isn't a light-hearted piece of fluff but something rooted in the knowledge that when she talked openly about her illness, Horton was met by an unexpected outpouring of people in a similar situation.

"I went back to an old sixth form," says Horton. "I talked a bit about university and drama school. Then I also mentioned that I got progressively more ill with anorexia over a few years after leaving sixth form and had eventually gone into hospital and, from that point, started on the bumpy road to recovery. I didn't really say any more than that and I was stunned by how many people were waiting to chat to me about their own experiences."

caroline horton

Horton's short talk opened up the subject for discussion and pupils and teachers alike wanted to share their experiences with her. Eating disorders tend to be a bit shadowy - rarely acknowledged even when they're known. So when an opportunity to talk about the problems, the worries, the powerlessness and the absurdity arises, the confessional floodgates swing open with unexpected alacrity.

In fact, the ability to get show-goers to engage with anorexia is perhaps the show's biggest strength, but one of the hazards of engaging with eating disorders is the risk of triggering relapses. As a result you won't find any numbers in the play.

"We don't talk about calories or specific weights," says Horton. "I was really keen to avoid that because I remember scouring magazine articles and books for that sort of information to check if I was doing it 'right'."

The performers also regularly check in with one another, making sure the shows and the emotional pressure they exert don't take too heavy a toll.

Speaking about her current progress, Horton is very much aware that recovery will be a lifelong process. "It depends on the week," she says when I ask how she is. "Generally, most days, I'm alright and I'm much better at giving myself a break and getting back on track if I have a bad patch. Over the years it will slowly get easier and I've also learned I can be very open about how I am."

That openness has translated into a well-crafted, humorous and heartbreaking piece of theatre. As Caroline notes, "Out of something incredibly dark in my life something a little bit good has come."

Mess by Caroline Horton opens at Battersea Arts Centre today.

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