“This show has the potential to make you both laugh out loud and well up” states Battersea Arts Centre, in what I consider a major understatement for Demi Nandhra’s ‘Life is No Laughing Matter’, an autobiographical one-woman show about mental illness. In 75 minutes, Nandhra offers a comedic, impassioned, and at some moments genuinely haunting insight into life with severe depression.
As someone who has personally struggled with mental health issues, this piece struck me where no live performance has before. The show began with Nandhra emerging from inside what can only be described as a giant yellow beanbag-come-sumo-suit, and proceeding to attempt to eat cereal around the obstacle of the costume. In a show filled with self-described “sh*t metaphors”, this opening sequence was anything but – stylistically epitomising the daily struggles people with mental ill health face. Sometimes activities as simple as eating breakfast are near impossible to navigate around your mental yellow beanbag.
Even the staging appeared to be a metaphor for depression. Nandhra’s partner, Aaron, is on stage throughout, merely sat on a laptop and occasionally being used as a prop, despite himself suffering, as revealed in the play’s opening, from agoraphobia. Nandhra naturally makes light of this, but it is a pertinent example of the co-dependency and eternal need for support from loved ones that comes with being a depressive. The staging is messy, involving water, skittles, banana and cheesecake being spread across the space throughout. Perhaps such mess is, too, a representation of depression, symbolic of disorderly thoughts and chaotic lifestyles. Nandhra opens the show with a list of allegories taken from Google, but her own are just as poignant.
Despite the rather, shall I say, depressing, material, Nandhra traverses it with wit and skill, creating moments of light out of the darkness. My favourites include a slapstick routine in which she frantically eats countless bananas whilst exercising furiously, (after her doctor advised her to eat bananas and exercise as a cure for her low mood) and the appearance of her dog,
Yoko, a professed ‘dog for depression’. Yet among the humour, which any sufferer knows is essential for survival, there are instances of raw honesty. Often this was presented as a stark dichotomy, with a humorous tale of Nandhra poking fun at her grandmother attempting to cure her with Amrit (a form of holy water), contrasted with her sudden pouring of the water over herself, creating a silent and serious moment among the laughter. There was also Nandhra’s tale of her Uncle’s suicide, which her mother asked her to take out of the show, which existed as more than a mere piece in her set. It appeared to be a moment of personal catharsis for Nandhra, and as she broke down into tears on stage, so did I. For such a private moment of a still-taboo topic to be so boldly expressed was an act of true bravery. Here is where it became clear to me why this show is so important.
Despite advances, there still remains a clear stigma surrounding mental illness, and more so surrounding acts of self-inflicted violence as a result of such illnesses, such as suicide. For this piece to be so brutally authentic, and to have such genuine feeling beneath its comedy, brings mental health into the public conversation in a way that is accessible, and above all else, truthful. Nandhra’s skill to capture the complexities of emotion is exquisite, and incredibly useful. I feel this show does more than bring the topic of mental ill health into discussion, it reveals an insight into what it’s like to be a sufferer, what it’s like to traverse life with depression. For this reason, I would invite everyone to experience this piece if possible, not only to experience the wonder that is Demi Nandhra, but perhaps to formulate a better understanding and to reduce the fear surrounding those with mental illness. It’s true, life is no laughing matter, but Nandhra makes it that bit easier to tolerate.