29 May – 9 June 2018
Devised and performed by Sophie Winter
Directed and co-devised by Ben Hadley
I am a woman with anxiety on my way to see a show about a woman with anxiety, when I realise that I have put the coordinates for the wrong theatre into Citymapper and now have to power walk one kilometre to the correct one. Not a great start. I arrive sweaty and red, puffing and panting, five minutes after the performance has begun, trying to kid myself that arriving to this show in a state of high anxiety is basically just a Stanislavski-esque reviewing technique.
However, as soon as I am calmly and forgivingly ushered into the dark subterranean space of the Bunker Theatre, my heartbeat starts to return to normal. The performer is wearing a bright blonde wig, a terrible 80s puffer jacket, a bum bag, and a welcoming smile. The stage is empty except for a large cartoonish old-style TV, a big rug with rainbow stripes reminiscent of TV colours bars, and a mound of cushions in cheerful colours. There is a nice comfy cushion on my seat. This feels like a safe space – I am reminded strongly of my kindergarten teacher’s classroom.
I have done some basic googling on my way to the theatre, so I know that Challenge Anneka was a TV series from 1989-95 (with a brief 2006-7 reboot) starring Anneka Rice, who completed – on camera – charitable projects in a very short timeframe. This woman in front of me looks like an approximation of that blonde, confident, almost manically capable woman. Her challenge today? To cure the anxiety of one of her biggest fans, Holly. Over the course of this challenge, we meet a wide variety of characters (all portrayed by versatile comedian Sophie Winters), both onscreen and onstage (I loved the various dialogues between a character onstage and another onscreen, which must have been tricky to memorise and get to the point where they were natural, well-timed, and comedic!). A number of methods for tackling anxiety are floated by various characters encountered – from yoga to facing your fears to having sex to Zoloft – and Anneka and Holly delve into her experience of anxiety, its symptoms, causes, and effects. There is light audience interaction, and I am required to give up my cushion in order to help Holly move house, but I don’t mind. A man offers Holly gummy bears while she’s having a panic attack, and I am strongly reminded of Tom Baker’s Doctor. But that’s not really relevant to this review.
For the most part, Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka is light, playful, and feels like an educational children’s show, with just enough of a wink-wink self-awareness to make its silly premise work. The audience is never the butt of any jokes, and when Holly is, it’s clear that we are laughing with her and not at her, or her anxiety, which is important. However, there are times when it strays into more serious territory: the moments when Holly has a panic attack on the Tube, and another while a UCL scientist gives us a lecture on neuroscience, for example. The blurred vision, multiple conflicting intrusive thoughts, heavy breathing, and descriptions of claustrophobia and nausea hit a little too close to home for me, but thankfully weren’t taken too far for my limits. It helped that throughout, Winters was (in character) only ever kind, empathetic, and understanding to her audience and any sufferers of anxiety. The final resolution was, as admitted by the temporarily character-less narrator, not very dramatically satisfying, but it was realistically, cautiously optimistic about life with anxiety. A special video cameo at the end hit the perfect final note and left the show feeling balanced and well concluded.
My only criticisms of this performance would be the following: 1) It sometimes meandered a little, and could have done with more narrative tension or structure – perhaps something as simple as a checklist of “tasks” Anneka would complete? Or a countdown, to mimic the original TV series? 2) For sufferers of stronger anxiety than mine, some of the themes and staging decisions could be somewhat confronting and/or triggering – if a warning to that effect was in place, I might have missed it in my late rush, but one was probably necessary. 3) The descriptions of anxiety were very basic-level and at times reductive; I realise that this show was intended as Learning About Anxiety 101, but some discussions about the different types of anxieties, the history of the disorder, and social causes (rather than just neurological) would have been welcome to make the show a little more interesting and thought-provoking for those more familiar with the topic.
On balance, this show was a well-researched, sensitively crafted, gently humorous, and simply a kind exploration of what it’s like to live with anxiety. I would especially recommend it for older children and young adults, those who are just starting to wonder if they might have anxiety, and anyone who has a friend or loved one with anxiety and who wants to learn more about their experiences. Tackling anxiety is certainly a challenge, but just like Anneka, you don’t have to do it alone.