‘Surfacing’ at VAULT Festival review – Creepy, kaleidoscopic play demands we appreciate mental health’s complexity


As you might expect from the title alone, Papatango Prize winner Tom Powell’s Surfacing actually goes beneath the surface, not only introducing us to an unsettling Wonderland/Dissocia lurking underwater, but in a more rational sense, encouraging us to consider what someone experiencing a mental health crisis might be thinking and feeling behind forced smiles and glazed over eyes.

In this respect, Stephen Bailey’s staging of Powell’s text features some terrific technology to illustrate the dynamics of an individual’s psyche. One screen on stage is solely dedicated to airing protagonist Luc’s (Rosie Gray) intrusive internal thoughts, there’s a handful of sound effects generated by motion capture technology (such as, I believe, the cracking of fragile bones), and Abi Turner’s warm, pulsating lighting design during a scene with balloons (it’s better left unexplained) is calming and mesmerising.

We’re told the performance is fully captioned (it is, save for some technical difficulties), audio described and performed in a relaxed environment, but when a remote controlled toy car veers onto the stage underneath pulsating lights overhead, I’m made to question if every element of the production really is relaxed in nature. Whatever the answer to that may be, though, an eerie intensity to what’s unfolding for NHS therapist Luc remains throughout. It feels as though Gray’s learned double the dialogue as she convincingly conveys the impact of her intrusive thoughts in tight facial expressions. The abandonment of the special screen screen midway through to see Luc think more out loud feels a little odd as a creative decision, however, considering how much emphasis is placed on it at the start.

Daniel Rainford, meanwhile, displays an impressive range as an assortment of characters, from slouched service user Owen who comes in with an expectation of a quick fix, to the more animated mice Luc experimented on in order to induce depression to cure it in humans (a subplot which appears to interrogate the difference in psychological experiences between man and animal, but in insufficient detail), where Rainford dons a sinister mouse head with bulging black eyes and adopts a whining voice akin to Mickey Mouse on drugs. It’s deliberately unnerving, and some of the plot points are more bizarre than troubling: Luc’s overbearing boss in the alien world in which she finds herself is legitimately a microwave. Honest. Then again, its endless whirring only adds to the feeling of everything being on edge, ready to ping.

Even with all this creepiness, it may, at times, appear as though Surfacing is romanticising a psychotic break. Yet beneath it all, there is a starkness in how it presents mental health which confounds the rigid limitations Luc’s profession places on the conditions she treats. With the therapist herself undergoing a hallucinogenic experience while swimming – fuelled by her past job working in animal testing and a family bereavement – it soon becomes a criticism of the very profession she has dedicated part of her life towards.

More specifically, it’s a damning takedown of the emotionless, blanket bureaucracy of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and a rationality behind the therapy which – while useful to some, as the play notes – can fail other individuals (especially those who are neurodivergent), simply because it doesn’t consider all the intricacies of one’s psychology and neurology. A creative expression of this idea is in Owen viewing a metaphorical sea as ice in contrast to Luc perceiving it as hot lava. There is an individuality and complexity to one’s mental illnesses, but at the same time, there’s shared emotions behind all of this too – and I believe Surfacing isn’t afraid to express the beauty behind such a scenario, however controversial that may be.

Surfacing is now playing at VAULT Festival until 19 February. All performances are fully captioned, audio described and set in a relaxed environment.

Production Images: Alex Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Surfacing’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and while I have interviewed playwright Tom Powell and know lighting designer Abi Turner in a personal capacity, all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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