Bold and Charismatic, Anne Siddons Takes us on a Tour of Loneliness

I always enjoy going to the Soho Theatre – it’s the fringe venue par excellence that is not afraid of staging shows for many different types of audiences and ages, such as How (not) to Live in Suburbia, advising under 18s to perhaps stay away.

In this hour-long autobiographical piece containing live performance, narration, video, and new and old music hits, performance maker and writer Annie Siddons bares all by revealing the story of her struggle with loneliness and how this can affect and hurt so many more souls than we think. In her own words: “I’m an inherently gregarious person. I’m not the person that you would think would be lonely. But I became pathologically lonely, and it affected me really deeply, changed my personality and my outlook. It became impossible for me not to talk about it.”

The stage is empty apart from a large screen that presents how living in Twickenham (Home of rugby!), aka THOR, changed Siddons’ life. I am not a big fan of screens on stages, as it can take away from what theatre craft has to offer, but in this case, the writer’s struggles needed a more clearly visible medium to express the seriousness of the matter, all the while using humour and lightness.

The writing is very strong, including poetic passages and capturing the enormous cocktail of feelings from the writer. The show starts with an ode to London, the “overripe brothel madam with a Postdoctorate… She will delight you and surprise you – and steal your wallet.”

the walrus stinks and is annoying, but will not leave Siddons alone

For the Londoners in the audience, this is a treat, perhaps especially in the wake of tragedies in this grand city in the last few months: Richard DeDomenici’s videos present snippets of life in the city and its heterogeneous culture, showing that everything and everyone’s imperfections are accepted. There are 9 million souls in this city, she reminds us. As the cliché goes, that’s when we are most lonely – when so many invisible faces surround us.

Unfortunately, as a single mother of two daughters, whom Siddons represents here as two olive trees that need to be constantly watched over, watered and protected, she moves to THOR with its perfect houses and lawns and observes the beginning of her loneliness: people from Twickenham do not understand her artistic identity, ask her to even stay away from a book group, and in addition, she finds it hard to write, so even her agent is threatening to drop her.

A walrus starts to appear in her life. Now, I admit I had to look up the meaning of the walrus’s presence. It is a social animal who should protect one from loneliness. In this piece, the walrus stinks and is annoying, but will not leave Siddons alone. 

One day, however, she meets handsome Jay in the park and a passionate relationship commences until he decides to move into the big city, to New Cross, the home of hip artists, to be precise! What ensues is a further spiral of lonely days and nights in which she feels that people are attacking and alienating her. On the evening of her 40th birthday, she finally goes in to London to celebrate. She thinks she will meet a date although that date was never planned. She ends up in a pub surrounded by the walrus and a seal.

Siddons’ presence on stage has a very soothing quality. Her slow pace and charisma are thoroughly enjoyable. Nicki Hobday, co-directing and playing another version of the narrator, brought her character back to the period of her early struggle, with an extravagant wig, drunkenness, and angry texts. Indeed, chronic loneliness causes changes in the brain which have to be recovered from in a similar way to addiction. Loneliness causes hyper vigilance for social threat and a tendency to view even neutral encounters as threatening.

Director Justin Audibert pushes the contrast between Hobday’s extravagance and Siddons’ calmness by leaving the stage empty and making it a dream-like location against the richness of colours and elements presented on the screen.

 why spare the viewer from the truth?

The filmmaking was masterful all the while looking tactfully amateurish at times. I enjoyed many of the scenes, such as the break-up between Siddons and Jay in Victorian costume using close-ups in all the right places, the scene in the Twickenham nursery where she definitely does not belong, and the GoPro camera sequence when Siddons walks around London towards the end of the show, heartbroken.

With any type of difficult subject which could reach anyone, humour is something that can connect the members of the audience together. I did ask myself whether the harshness of some of her remarks were necessary. At times, the images on the video are shocking, such as the showing of the 'dick-pics' from Tinder, but they were what happened to her, so why spare the viewer from the truth?

The show ends with a sequence of the performer’s training with the Samaritans. It is an increasingly overloaded service since mental health provision on the NHS has been reduced, and we understand how important it is for her to reflect on her past. However, the Walrus still appears to her sometimes.

This is a poetic, bold, and well-crafted piece that will sell out again and again.

How (Not) To Live In Suburbia begins a new UK Tour on November 1st.

 Sophie Tergeist

@sophieterg

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