Borderline by Sundial Theatre

 Borderline by Sundial Theatre

MancMuse is extremely proud to be sponsoring Borderline, a relatable and much-needed piece of theatre. Mental health is something we all struggle with, yet it’s something that has been stigmatised for too long, making many of us afraid to open up about it – even to the people closest to us. And for those of us that need help the most, those of us that are both desperate and brave enough to reach out – hoping to hold onto someone else’s hand in the darkness – there just isn’t enough support available. Too many of our family members, friends, neighbours, compatriots – ourselves – are forced to struggle alone because there is no other choice. Although the men and women working for the NHS are undeniably heroes – their strong will and selfless sacrifice over the recent pandemic being only the latest evidence in a long history of frontline heroism – their hands are often tied behind their backs by a flawed system. Borderline holds a mirror up to this system. It shows us how things truly are, where they will more than likely end up, and why they need to change.

Sundial Theatre’s inaugural theatre piece, performed at NWTAC Theatre, centers on Hal (Emerson Baigent) and Cody (Callum Appleby), two almost-brothers who – along with Cody’s mother and Hal’s adoptive mother, June (played by Grace Bute) – find themselves stuck in a national health system of dystopian proportions. Once a month they attend ‘check-ups’ at their GP, where they are asked vague and unhelpful questions such as ‘Do you struggle to make a cup of tea?’ and ‘If you did want to take your life, do you have any plan for how you might do so?’

After very few similarly frustrating questions that fail to truly delve into the characters’ mental or physical state, a computer algorithm diagnoses the severity of the patients’ condition using a level system, from one to ten. That’s right – this is healthcare without the personal touch; without the empathy. And, scarily, it’s not far off from where we currently are. How many of us have had to try to explain the unexplainable pains, mind and body, that we’ve felt, to a doctor who simply has forms to fill and boxes to tick? And recently, thanks to the pandemic, most of it has been over the phone, if we’ve managed to get them on the phone at all. We’re living in the age of increasing paranoia, of what’s happening in our minds and bodies as well as the world outside of our safe spaces. Yet there seems to be less people willing to listen, able to help. Empathy is indeed in short supply. Healthcare is becoming a business, prioritising speed and efficiency over all, as if we’re nothing more than machines in need of a regular MOT so we can get back on the road. But even the most durable engine needs some good, old-fashioned TLC. Otherwise it breaks down.

Emerson Baigent and Callum Appleby in Borderline

Borderline isn’t just about this eerily accurate yet futuristic view of our healthcare system, though. Not entirely. We see the effects of it through the personal experiences of the main characters, Hal and Cody. Let’s meet them, shall we?

Hal suffers from fibromyalgia – he feels pain all over his body, constantly. It is also vaguely hinted (more towards the end) that he has borderline personality disorder – hence the title. And I say vaguely to be polite. I could’ve watched this play ten times and never come to the conclusion that Hal has any mental health condition past the understandable constant shitty feeling one must have when one literally is barely able to move because of physical pain. Fortunately, after reading Andrew Campbell’s interview with the crew and Bobbie Diesel’s interviews with the lead and supporting cast, I had prior knowledge going into Borderline that writer/director Daniel Johnson wrote the character of Hal with BPD in mind – although he didn’t want to explicitly state it in the play. Without such prior knowledge, I would never have picked up on that fact. Hal drinks, smokes, does recreational drugs – he seems to have a general ‘fuck it’ nihilistic attitude towards life. But can you blame him? As he states early on, he isn’t even able to walk to his GP appointment unassisted. I’d be pretty nihilistic if every move I made, every step I took, was complete agony. But that’s just me. I know Dan has had his own experiences with BDP, so I don’t doubt that he understands the condition more than I ever will. It’s just one of those: if you’ve seen the play and didn’t pick up on it, you’re not alone; if you’re yet to see the play but have a ticket, it’s best you go into it with this information so you fully understand some of the more subtle aspects the characters allude to.

Cody is essentially the polar opposite of Hal (as is common in a two-lead student play). His problems are more commonplace, more relatable – shit job, sick mum, rent to pay, etc. – yet compared to Hal he is less equipped to handle drama, never mind tragedy.

Rebekah Jeffery-Hughes, Emerson Baigent and Fletcher Davies Rushton in Borderline

So when June discovers that she has a tumour, yet the healthcare algorithm deems her only a ‘level five’, meaning she must wait at least another month before receiving any treatment, our two leads are thrown into turmoil. Cody finds himself working more hours at the job he hates in order to support his mum; and Hal gets a job himself, though because of his physical condition (and perhaps his mental health, though this is barely even hinted to), he never shows up.

Strangely, Hal barely seems to change throughout the entirety of the play – until the final scene, at least (which I’ll get to). I suppose living with fibromyalgia – having a weak body – gives him a strong mind. (Again, it doesn’t exactly scream BPD if you ask me.) Cody, on the other hand, as the typical family martyr, carries it all on his shoulders, and quickly crumbles under the weight. I have to praise Callum Appleby for his performance as the tortured, well-wishing everyman. We can all understand how difficult it is when the best of intentions turn into the worst of outcomes. Life and love are often like water – the harder we hold on, the quicker it slips through our fingers. And this is the essence of Cody’s character. He holds onto what he wants, needs, too hard. Then again, don’t we all.

Even when Hal says he has suicidal thoughts, he seems nonchalant, as if it’s a given for someone with fibromyalgia. But his emotions never seem life-threatening; not until he has lost everything – in which case, most of us would feel exactly the same. Whereas Cody’s descent into depression is gradual and heart-wrenching. His journey downwards, his spiral away from sanity, is believable and inherently human. It’s Cody’s character arc that makes this piece what it is.

The third act is when the play truly comes into its own. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that this is where the limitations of the play’s scarily-not-so-dystoptian healthcare system are most evident. Cody, feeling suicidal, essentially begs the GP for his life; and although he is given a slightly higher ‘level’ by the algorithm, anyone with empathy can clearly see that it isn’t enough to help him. Whereas Hal, who has moved past basic nihilism towards a serious indifference of his own life that hints at the likelihood of suicide (for the first time, in my opinion), is actually given the lowest ‘level’ he’s received in his entire life. This perfectly summarises the all too obvious issues with the healthcare system that they (and to a similar but lesser extent, we) are subjected to: when it is truly needed, it fails.

Holly Van-Assen and Grace Bute in Borderline

As far as student productions go, Borderline is one of the best I’ve seen (and I’ve been at the helm of a few myself). There are the usual yet expected flaws of such a piece – for example, the dialogue is a little inconsistent in proficiency, ranging from poignant and artistically impressive lines such as ‘I feel on the edge. Like I could either take over the world or it could collapse around me,’ to more daytime soap vibes. But such is always the case when young artists are starting out and perfecting their craft. The fact that the relatable characters and relationships, the emotive story and the thought-provoking themes overshadow any minor issues proves how successful Sundial Theatre’s initial outing in their year-long first season of productions truly is.

You could sense it in the room, see it on the faces, after the actors took their bows and the audience reconvened to NWTAC Theatre’s foyer. For me, it was really moving to be able to watch the cast and crew celebrate their success. While talking to many of them after the play, I could feel the electricity in the air. Adrenaline was clearly coursing through every vein in the house, and the energy coming off each person involved in the production was palpable. Together they had created a great piece of art, and they knew it. Although not part of the process myself, I felt happy – excited, even – to ride the wave of emotion that crescendoed and crashed around me.

Perhaps the title of Borderline doesn’t feel entirely accurate, but regardless, it is a play that’s definitely worth the watch! If you hurry, you’ll still be able to catch the final performance tonight – 7:30pm at NWTAC Theatre in Moston.

Before I end this review, I just want to take a moment to discuss NWTAC – my new favourite community theatre company. This was the second time I’ve attended their homely venue – the first being when I had the pleasure of seeing Phantom Memories, their ‘haunting musicals concert’, in October. Once again I found the place to be cosy and the management and FoH staff to be friendly. It feels like my local theatre, my home away from home. I look forward to visiting again.

That’s all from me until next time. If you’ve enjoyed this review, I’d greatly appreciate it if you could send me a tip here!

Luke Spiby

MancMuse co-founder, content writer and editor specialising in arts and events reviews. Luke writes screenplays, stage plays and novels between trips to the local; and he dabbles in copywriting and marketing to pay the bills. He also has experience directing and producing short films and theatre pieces, some of which have been in association with the Royal Exchange Theatre.

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