Bush Theatre's Collapsible Offers a Compelling One Woman Performance

Sheila Prophet enjoys a show which has had its run extended by popular demand

Pictures by Helen Murray

Collapsible, 'a show for anyone who has ever felt crumbly' has already won a string of awards for its writer, Irish playwright Margaret Perry and its star Breffni Holahan, and it was a major hit at last year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Now it’s arrived at the Bush Theatre’s Studio, which is small enough for the audience to become intimate with Essie and her struggles with the 21st century.

When we first meet Essie she appears as brash and super confident as a competitor in The Apprentice, right down to the forced smile. But as friends and family repeatedly express concern and ask if she is all right, we gradually discover she really isn’t.

As she explains to her sister Maura and her 'surgically attached' boyfriend Derek, Essie compares herself to a folding chair – solid one minute then in the next … not.

The stark set, designed by Alison Neighbour, cleverly echoes this idea, with Essie perched throughout on a high concrete pedestal. It initially appears rock solid but starts to crumble along with her facade, dust and sand showering from it as she moves around, bending, twisting and folding and unfolding her legs - but never managing to step down.

As her monologue progresses, we discover she didn't walk out of that dream job, she was asked to leave when she became too depressed to get to the office, the jargon laden job interviews ("Welcome to the home of innovation and disruption!") are not going well, her girlfriend left her after a fit of rage ended in plate throwing and a visit to A&E; and she is currently wasting her time - and her savings - building a 'tiny kingdom' in her flat, where she spends hours absorbed in the internet; the good, the bad and the ridiculous, in the form of quizzes where she finds what international city she is (Paris), what condiment (mustard) and what kind of rabbit (dwarf).

All this means that Essie is losing track of herself and her own identity - so much so that she has taken to 'crowdsourcing' other people's opinions by asking for words that describe her. But the results - practical, bubbly, smart, no nonsense - are shallow and superficial and as her ex-girlfriend points out, could apply to anyone.

As Essie becomes increasingly lost and isolated, you wonder what will become of her, but at the last moment there is a sweet, if slightly contrived spark of hope when her sister's boyfriend Derek suddenly steps up out of the audience to tell her he shares her feelings and she is not alone.

Collapsible is witty and well observed and contains many all too recognisable moments - I must confess to sneaking sympathy with her friend Liz telling Essie to grow up and get over herself - and it benefits hugely from its setting and superb use of lighting by Alex Fernandes.

However the play's success is completely reliant on the quality of the acting and Breffni Holahan is just brilliant, completely inhabiting Essie and keeping me, for one compelled though her 60 minute performance.

Collapsible has just received two new nominations in this year's 'Offies' Awards, which celebrate the best of London's independent, alternative and fringe theatre - Best New Play for writer Margaret and Best Lead Performance for Breffni - and both are well deserved.

The Offies, now in their tenth year will be presented at Battersea Arts Centre on 8 March. Find out more here.

Collapsible has proved so popular, its run at the Bush Theatre has been extended by popular demand till 21 March. Find out more and book tickets here or call the box office on 020 8743 5050.

February 20, 2020