Review: Waxing lyrical about mental illness

By Lesley Stones 13 January 2014

It’s brave, it’s a little insane and it’s very, very funny. LESLEY STONES reviews Ruby Wax’s autobiographical one-woman show about her battle with mental illness.

One in four people suffers from some form of mental illness, Ruby Wax tells us, looking at her audience.

One, two, three, four – it’s you,” she says, pointing a finger some hapless character in the front row. The rest of us laugh, or giggle nervously.

Ruby Wax is the American comedian and actress who appeared to have it all: fame and fortune, adoring fans, a husband and family. Until she found herself lying down in a school car park, unable to go on.

Wax has turned her battle with mental illness into an intriguing show, part comedy, part therapy and partly informational. The audience at Montecasino Theatre was predominantly white suburbanites, possibly hoping this would be more entertaining and cheaper than a visit to a shrink.

It’s brave to present a show about a topic that’s usually taboo and always deadly serious, but as a comic that must be how Wax can deal with it best. For all she’s been through she’s still incredibly funny, with a dynamic stage presence and some wickedly witty quips.

She begins by telling us how she became the poster girl for mental illness and talks us through her history, peppering it with jokes and anecdotes to make you laugh – or make you cry, if you’re bipolar.

She brings in jokes about her surreal surroundings at Montecasino, proving that her barbed wit and eye for the absurd are sharp as ever. She’s great at accents and characters too, sending up everybody including herself.

Wax uses a flip chart to diagnose some odd aspects of human behaviour, and a model of the brain to show how it can malfunction. All done with humour and charm that make this a genuine comedy show rather than some self-indulgent exercise in melancholy.

Her story is fascinating, and the details she adds from her recent degree studies at Oxford add information that is intriguing and perhaps to many in the audience, important to hear.

There are dark moments as she explains how modern lifestyles of ambition and envy create the toxins that fuel mental illness.

Naturally it gets quite intense, and at the interval she shows her insecure side by asking us nicely to please come back for the second half.

We do, and it turns out to be a question and answer session. This could be the part where people squirm, but I found it intriguing. I wondered what would happen if the questions dried up – whether she would fill the time with more jokes, or take a bow and send us home. It didn’t happen, because people obviously found it as interesting as I did. She tells us that she began writing these shows because people with mental illnesses don’t have anywhere to meet other people and discuss the issues freely. Why not, when even alcoholics can organise AA meetings in every suburb despite being a bunch of drunks, she quips.

Wax says her mental illness in is remission rather than cured, and that when it strikes again, it will flatten her even more intensely than it has before.

It’ll be great material for another show, but maybe you’d better catch this one now in case a relapse takes her off stage completely.

Ruby Wax – Out of her Mind runs at Montecasino Theatre until January 19 followed by a related show, Sane New World, at Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay from January 29 to February 15. DM


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