Dir. Lies Pauwels
MS is often described as accelerated old age, and Alison Peebles gives a glimpse into the effects of such a disease through an artistic medium in which worth is very often derived from appearance. Peebles has been involved in show business from a young age and has enjoyed a long and illustrious career. Her performance in My Shrinking Life, a project of her own conception, is an affirmation that her own diagnosis with MS is by no means an ending to her stage career.
My Shrinking Life does a commendable job of highlighting the real physical and mental agony of a debilitating disease, as Peebles visibly reconciles who she once was with what her condition has forced her body to become. This loss of control is palpable as early as the first moments of the play when she makes her entrance by walking down the stairs onto the stage; a simple feat for most but a dramatic, stomach clenching trial for her. Still, a jaunty, if ironic smile remains on her face, with every facial twitch a small, self-aware performance in itself; fitting for a lifelong actress portraying a lifelong actress.
A child actor (one of the two young performers, Amy Gallagher and Alice Young, touring with the show) portrays the younger version of Allison, her high, girlish voice clear and strong as she lists off the drugs she has done (LSD and cocaine among others, ‘but never heroin’). She remains present throughout the show, and delivers an exceedingly mature and wise performance, though she rarely speaks. She is always on the edges of the action, often near the wheelchair parked ominously in the corner. The wheelchair represents total dependence, but Peebles is not ready to resign herself to such a fate; some of the most powerful scenes are based around reminding the audience that while she may move more slowly, she is neither childlike nor an invalid and does not deserve to be treated as such.
The other members of the cast, Katie Armstrong, Thomas J Baylis and Hanna Stanbridge ( all professional dancers) chaotically leap about the stage as Allison sits calmly in the corner, sometimes sucking a lolly, sometimes sipping red wine, her withered legs curling in on one another. Stacking the cast with trained dancers creates a strikingly beautiful physical aspect to the production, highlighting, rather than attempting to mask what cannot be ignored, presenting a startling illustration of the degeneration caused by the disease. Still, a perfect body does not necessarily denote a perfect mind and a perfect life as the young cast is quick to assure the audience, and each of them deliver strong performances.
My Shrinking Life uses sharply contrasting, often surreal images to shove the audience member towards the uncomfortable conclusion of inevitability; the idea that to waste time being unhappy is a waste of life, a waste of health and a waste of a capable body. No one is in control and no one can predict where they will be tomorrow or next week or in ten years. These ideas are far from original but their portrayal, while occasionally bitter, is never desolate, resulting in a powerful and inspiring piece that does a wonderful job of understanding and sympathising with victims of MS.