18 October, Spiegeltent, HBAF18
By Jess Soutar Barron

There’s a strain in my whanau up North dotted with complex mental health issues. Every other generation it pops up, randomly. In our circle we know it as “the unhelpful gene”. It looks like schizophrenia in one, autism in another, melancholy, mania.

This show grips you in the solar plexus and shakes you until these personal, private stories fall out. It leaves you with a spasming in your diaphragm and a kind of breathless claustrophobia.

Cherie Moore, centre stage, tells us about Valerie, and Margot, and also about Cherie herself. She is sparkly and gregarious, articulate with a crisp confidence that’s catching. She’d be the life of the party, if this was a party. And at first it almost feels like one. There’s singing and banter and gossiped stories about family and love affairs. But then, disruption, and the smooth ride lurches dramatically, ripping the rug, changing tack, leaving us hanging on.

Robin Kelly steps up. Erudite and clinical he lets us in on the secret we’re seeing. All that smooth and sweet is about to swing sideways into a new realm: here comes the facts. This is a family story that juxtaposes scientific data about how we are with poignant storytelling about who we are. It’s a double helix of intertwined truths. And it’s personal. This is Robin’s family, Robin’s story and because he’s married to Cherie, it’s her story too.

Tom Broome provides a solid backbone of percussion and spoken word accompaniment. He’s that straight-up friend, who’s everyone’s rock. He’s around but only gets involved when he has to. He’s objective, a soundboard, but ever-present.

Skilled and pared back use of tech, super strong vocals, disciplined musicianship are all firm foundations on which to build up this multi-dimensional, multi-media show that’s been billed ‘cabaret’. It’s more than that. It takes these many modes of storytelling and throws them together in the kind of reckless way genes are pooled when making new humans. What comes out is as haphazard, as magical and as curious as all of us, unhelpful gene or not.

This is just one family, and just one line of that one family, and what makes it unstable also makes it dynamic, what brings chaos also brings charisma. And the more one family here and another family there share their own telling of this thing we label mental health the easier it is for all the others to open up their dark cupboards, and free their ghosts. So this show is a gift, and a love letter.

Valerie is a deeply personal, and universally relevant work that leaves its audience satisfied, mesmerised and heartbroken.

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