A quick search of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) on the NHS website goes some way to explaining Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe’s chosen premise for The Shape of the Pain: ‘a poorly understood condition in which a person experiences persistent severe and debilitating pain,’ it reads.
In this one-person show at Wilton’s Music Hall, Hannah McPake explores the psychological and social effects of this ‘poor understanding,’ interrogating not only lackadaisical patient-management within the medical profession, but also considering the impact of pain on romantic relationships, and perhaps most pertinently, on self-perception and mental wellbeing.
The Fringe First award-winning script is a confessional continuum, at times epigrammatic, but rarely poetic: ‘I am a test that you can fail in a lot of ways,’ McPake declares. It’s her ability to switch from these light reflections to passages of sinister intensity which give the show its motion, helped by Melanie Wilson’s score and Joshua Pharo’s light design; we can locate McPake’s psyche in nanoseconds, even if ‘the person feeling the pain is not me’.
The home becomes the nightclub, which becomes the bedroom as the infancy of a new relationship is traced, but the fictional love story serves only to signpost McPake’s self-assessment. It’s a welcome storyline, but as a psychological facilitator, rather than delineated plotline. The mystery man rightly remains nameless.
The play’s strength lies in McPake’s ability to draw attention to language’s injurious potential, modifying familiar phrases like ‘have you tried [a certain treatment for pain]?’ and revealing their absurdity when relentlessly repeated.
At times the transition between these experiments and more linear passages leaves us momentarily confused, and the piece is at times disjointed. Perhaps accepting that this fracturing is a thematic necessity rather than a structural choice is the clearest path to understanding. Meanwhile, the 160 year old music hall resembles a nave in the deepest moments of confession. The Shape of the Pain is a tantalising experience.