Rust grapples with a difficult and emotionally intense subject matterHelena Fox

Rust, a new musical written by Helena Fox and Geraint Owen based on real-life experiences of mental health services and recovery from mental illness, blends original songs with raw emotional performance to cast these ever-important issues in a new light. Ambitious and well-intentioned, Rust grapples with difficult and emotionally intense subject matter through the medium of musical theatre; a challenging feat to say the least. The show’s efforts to put discussion of mental health in the spotlight are extremely commendable and clearly resonate with audiences, but to be truly triumphant Rust needs to pay as much attention to its theatrical technicalities as it does to its emotional integrity.

Rust follows the story of Evie, following her admission to a rehabilitation centre. As Evie learns more about herself and her mental health, so does the audience. Throughout the show, both she and the characters she meets come to various realizations about mental illness and recovery, growing closer as a result of their shared experiences. The other patients comprise a diverse group, ranging from teenagers battling eating disorders to parents struggling with addiction. One particularly memorable character is Jude (Seán O’Neill) an ex-drag queen who enjoyably revives his stage persona in one of the show’s more upbeat numbers. O’Neill is impressively convincing as a troubled older man. In one particularly impactful moment, Jude voices his frustration over the conflation of his sexuality with his depression, and O’Neill’s conviction in the line “I am depressed [...] But I wasn’t born that way. And I sure as hell was born queer” allows the message to hit its mark perfectly. Strong performances also came from Paloma van Tol and Alex Hancock, as Vanessa and Ollie respectively, whose portrayals were more understated but consistently compelling, offering a subtlety which elevated the ensemble.

The show’s efforts to put discussion of mental health in the spotlight are extremely commendable and clearly resonate with audiences

Playing the role of the protagonist Evie, Alice Gilderdale rises to the challenge of communicating the show’s fundamental message. Gilderdale skillfully moderates her portrayal of Evie’s inner landscape throughout, allowing us to feel increasingly close to her and fostering our investment in her journey. Her performance is extremely versatile as she navigates the various facets of Evie’s character and the tumult of her emotions. Dancing to Fleetwood Mac one minute and giving impassioned monologues the next, Gilderdale seems very comfortable at both ends of the spectrum. Her voice is beautifully clear and haunting and she handles the emotional depth of her songs with great competence.

The original musical score was composed by Geraint Owen (who is also the show’s director) and comprises a range of numbers which are often emotionally wrenching and occasionally quite funny. Particularly strong are ‘Rusted’ and ‘Mountains’, two ballads which take protagonist Evie’s emotional and physical state as their primary focus. The harmonies to which Owen sets the AA serenity prayer are also lovely, delivered well by the cast in an outstanding acapella moment. However, there are certain incidences in which the tone of the musical numbers jars somewhat with the sensitivity of the subject matter. For example, the song ‘Who’s Controlling Who?’ explores the backgrounds of each character, focusing heavily on addiction, yet some of the lines can feel unsettlingly trite. This tonal uncertainty returns at various junctures and is mildly disruptive to the show’s overall integrity, somewhat undermining its goal of meaningfully and sensitively discussing mental health through musical theatre.

Given the nature of the story itself and the show’s clear belief in the tragic ubiquity of mental illness, surely spoon-feeding this message to the audience so directly is unnecessary?

The same effect is also present at times in the script. The tone of the writing is prone to switching uncomfortably and is not always pitched quite right. The dialogue sometimes seems contrived: the excessive swearing can feel cumbersome and the diatribes delivered by Evie on more than one occasion come across as slightly unnatural. The breaking of the fourth wall by Vanessa the psychiatrist (van Tol), in which she emphasises the universality of the mental health crisis, feels heavy-handed. Given the nature of the story itself and the show’s clear belief in the tragic ubiquity of mental illness, surely spoon-feeding this message to the audience so directly is unnecessary? It would perhaps be more powerful simply to allow the audience to reflect on their own personal resonances with the show independently in response to witnessing the characters’ stories.


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Staging a protest

This sense of disjointment and alienation is compounded in the staging; Owen stages the show in the round which, rather than feeling inclusive, ends up shutting the audience out of the group’s therapy circles and creating a disturbingly voyeuristic air as the characters are encircled by the audience. Rust’s run at the ADC in November this year promises to reassess this, given the nature of the ADC stage, which may work in its favour. Likewise, the scene changeovers, conducted in blackouts, are too frequent and overcomplicate what could be a much simpler staging set-up.

This show is bold and striking in its honesty about rehabilitation: it is valuably informative and certainly enjoyable, educating audiences about the process of recovery and the various realities of mental illness. Shows of its kind should be greatly encouraged in Cambridge and beyond. Although it ultimately falls short of doing complete justice to its cast and characters through its flawed presentation, it showcases an impressive array of talent and boasts songs which will echo among audiences long after they’ve vacated their seats. 

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