Dirty Protest Theatre’s new play, My Mix(ed-Up) Tape, is a high-energy mix of music, mime and fast paced dialogue, centering on a one-woman script written and performed by Katie Payne. Emma Schofield went along to Newport’s Le Pub to take a look.
There’s a hell of a lot going on in Dirty Protest’s latest offering, My Mix(ed-Up) Tape, by Katie Payne. A DJ set, BSL, mime and a high energy performance from Payne herself, collide to tell the story of Phoebe, a young woman forced to return to her hometown of Pontypridd to attend her cousin’s wedding. As so they so often do at weddings, things go wrong; people get drunk, secrets and lies are spilled in equal measure with the wine, relationships are called in to question. It’s a steady, if well-worn theme. The trope of a character returning to Wales after time spent in London is a recurring one, it rears its head in books, plays, poetry and it carries with it both the potential to be great and the risk of falling into cliché territory. Except there’s nothing clichéd about the story Payne has written, or the solo performance she gives once on stage.
We take our seats in Le Pub to a DJ set from Glade Marie, with a playlist that sets up an atmosphere reminiscent of that heady giddiness and warmth of a wedding party in full flow. From the moment Payne enters, accompanied by her BSL interpreter, that energy ramps up another notch. Payne has her audience in her hands immediately, her warmth and ability to set a scene instantly transporting us to the car park of Duffy’s in Pontypridd where main character Pheobe has just been evicted from the wedding by a bouncer. The setting and Pheobe’s assessment of the other guests may be funny, but over the course of around an hour, the play blasts through a range of topics including sex, pregnancy and abortion, bullying and violence. The content warning is justifiable and worth noting, but Payne’s script allows for these subjects to be handled with a combination of honesty and reflection. I’m always hugely reluctant to use the word gritty in reviews, but in this case it might just be justified by the sheer courage of Payne’s writing and performance.
In the lead up to its launch, Dirty Protest’s Artistic Director Catherine Paskell, who directed the production, described the play as “the most accessible – and access-aware – show that Dirty Protest have ever produced”. While not all the shows on the tour will be accompanied by BSL, the presence of an interpreter definitely enhanced the experience of the play as a visual vernacular – a form of physical theatre expression and a mix of mime, physical movement, gesture, facial expressions and key BSL signs. The show is, rightly, very much Payne’s own story, with her at its centre, but the interaction between Payne and her BSL interpreter, Sami Dunn, takes it to another level. Their mime of scenes in toilet cubicles and on dancefloors is fun and lively, with the action and frequent movement between past and present, carefully steered along by the music from Glade Marie. Payne’s may be the only voice we hear in the play, but it is magnified by the collaborative efforts of the team around her.
What cuts through the comedy and impeccable timing of My Mix(ed-Up) Tape is Payne’s depiction of the effects of ADHD on the life of a young woman struggling to find her place in the world. The play, which is being toured during ADHD awareness month, is a stark reminder of exactly why the condition is so misunderstood. Pheobe’s bursts of frenetic energy are countered by the painful side-effects of her chaotic behaviour and the complexity of her relationships with those around her. The response to Pheobe’s actions of her own mother, recounted by Payne, is one of both frustration and affection. Surrounded by family and friends in the wedding, Pheobe’s mother is desperate for her daughter to fit in, to blend into the mele of guests enjoying the celebrations. Later in the play, fearing that Pheobe may be missing and in danger, this same frustration gives way to a fierce determination to protect her daughter and ensure her welfare. For Pheobe, the volatility of her mother’s reaction to her behaviour is both confusing and hurtful.
That sense of complexity in the presentation of ADHD and the impact it has on both Pheobe and her family and friends drives the play forward as it unfolds. Anyone who has experienced for themselves, or witnessed someone they care about going through, an ADHD-related shutdown will have some idea of the crushing debilitation that wave of emotions can bring. It’s difficult to experience and equally difficult to describe and yet Payne manages to convey the breathless complexity of that emotional assault through a sequence of movements played out against a track list which matches that changing pace and the sense of a world which is closing in her around her. On a fraught run through Pontypridd, Payne’s Pheobe takes us on a whirlwind trip through her emotions and the bullying, pressure and misdiagnosis in her childhood that have led her to this moment.
In spite of all this emotion, Payne manages to avoid the play sliding into the, all too easy, trap of becoming a space for ranting at a captive audience. Payne’s Pheobe does not shout, relentlessly, into the space in front of her; instead, she sets a scene and takes her audience with her. Within minutes, the audience is part of that wedding party vibe, accidental participators in Pheobe’s attempts to navigate the burly bouncer and get herself back into the party. A series of rhetorical quips, scattered into the audience within the first few minutes of the play, also contributes to the bond which quickly builds between Payne and her audience. By the time the play reaches its emotional climax, it’s become difficult to watch and impossible to look away.
Ultimately, we end back where we started; there’s a whole lot going on here. No punches are spared, very few words or topics are off limits, and, in that sense, My Mix(ed-Up) Tape is exactly what new theatre should be: exciting, fast paced and probably not for the faint hearted.
My Mix(ed-Up) Tape is directed by Catherine Paskell and is a Dirty Protest Theatre production, on tour until 29th October. A list of venues and ticket information is available here.