Breathless, Soho Theatre

Monday 13th February 2023

Madeleine MacMahon in Breathless. Photo: Dom Moore
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The female monologue is a well-established contemporary theatre form, but often the content is predictable and sometimes clichéd. No such doubts come to mind with Laura Horton’s latest play, Breathless, a semi-autobiographical 70-minute account of hoarding clothes. Horton describes herself as having been “on the knife-edge” of compulsive collecting, in denial for a long time because of media portrayals of the condition are so extreme. I see the point: compulsive behaviour depends on repetition, which in turn makes it feel normal. Anyway, her one-woman show explores an original subject with an impressively tight control over language and storytelling. And it has its funny moments too.

Horton’s main speaker is Sophie, in her late thirties, a freelance journalist and aspiring fiction writer. When she hooks up with Jo, a chef who is working in a little patisserie, their date goes well until both of them are about to kiss. Then Sophie tells Jo that it’s her first time with a woman, and she’s a bundle of anxiety. But they like each other so they go on more dates, yet Sophie can never take Jo back to her place. She has a secret shame. She is a clothes hoarder: you can’t move in her room for racks and piles of coats, dresses, tops, skirts, shoes and other apparel. Shopping is a compulsion, an addiction, an embarrassment.

For Sophie, a bisexual woman who is struggling to accept her lifelong attraction to women, the attempt to keep control of her life results in a crisis that sends her back to her family home in Plymouth. As she is challenged by Jo to stop pretending, her parents are supportive and the moment when things begin to change comes from an unexpected direction. Horton writes with great nuance, and with a nice balance of comedy and deep feeling. The representation of hoarding as a gradual process which slowly takes over your life, offering both the comforts of habitual behaviour as well as a sense of safety, of possessions as security, is quietly and subtly written.

Actor Madeleine MacMahon not only tells Sophie’s story, but also voices the roles of Jo and other people in her protagonist’s life: her Dad, her Mum, her sister, Kevin (old friend) and Pip, a literary agent. As well as several bit parts. The descriptions of going on shopping sprees, of the bargains you can pick up at sales, convey the pleasures and joys of acquiring possessions as well as the resulting pains of hoarding. Sophie loves the beauty of designer clothing, even when she purchases items that don’t fit her and that she will never wear. Her thrill in getting bargain buys is palpable. The play’s title refers to both the excitement of shopping and the sense of suffocation that results from living under a mountain of possessions that you can’t bear to throw away.

As a depiction of bisexuality and queer experience, Breathless is nuanced and honest. In Stephanie Kempson’s well-paced and absorbing production, MacMahon plays Sophie and the other characters with an impressive clarity and precision. She uses a mild West Country accent for the scenes with Sophie’s Mum, who lives in Plymouth, and the other accents work effectively for the other characters. Verity Standen’s music accompanies the story’s emotional world and the simple set avoids literalism. First seen at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth last year, and successful at Edinburgh, this is a welcome London transfer for a show that, while admittedly a bit slender, is nevertheless both heartfelt and heartwarming.

This review first appeared on The Theatre Times  

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