How Hannah decked Harvey

17th October 2008 at 01:00

The key moment came when Easterhouse Primary children broke into unexpected and spontaneous applause when the girl ate the broccoli.

This was not, as you might guess, in a "five-a-day, healthy eating" demonstration, but at a crucial turning-point involving a troubling narrative which had tracked pupil Hannah through her dark night of the soul.

"The broccoli moment was amazing," agreed Tim Nunn, who has written Hannah and Harvey. "Putting a six-foot rabbit (Harvey) on the stage is always a risk when you want the children to identify with her antagonist. Having the boxing match forces the children to take sides, which helped, but the applause showed they understood what was going on. We were delighted."

This was a powerful piece of educational theatre by the Reeling and Writhing company, based on the life experience of Nunn's niece who, as a schoolgirl, made her way out of mental illness through art; he had always known it was a story worth telling. The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film festival (running until October 19), which sets out to create more positive attitudes towards mental illness, provides an ideal occasion.

One in four Scottish schoolchildren are likely to develop some kind of mental illness in the course of their lives, and the symptoms are often visible in the early years. Young Hannah is plagued by fears - of the dark, of school, of people. She is prey to panic attacks. She stays in her bedroom, painting obsessively, unable to eat or communicate with her single-parent father.

Her imaginary companion, at first her friend but incrementally her enemy, is Harvey. Although she begins by being imaginary, this "doe with attitude" becomes real, both to Hannah and her father. But this aggressive realisation is also shown to be part of her healing.

As part of his preparation, Nunn showed an early draft of the script to a clinical psychologist from the Mental Health Foundation. She was "overjoyed" when she came to the boxing match; professionals teach that "visualising the monster" is an essential stage to recovery.

Nunn claims only to hand "a script with holes" to director Katherine Morley, but that is a sign of the trust each places in the other's creativity. A story in which so much happens in drawing books, in a diseased mind and in silence might seem unstageable. The narrative is unrolled with stagecraft that, at times, took the young audience's breath away, by a design and production team that can make the theatre language as eloquent as the dialogue.

The production tours for a month from Arran to Lochgelly, including a week in the Glasgow Tron for the "Inspirations" festival. Reeling and Writhing's workshops are based on specific mental health needs, designed to increase the teacher's resources and expertise; others cover the more general arts base of creative writing, drama and animation. All are supported with teachers' packs.; T: 0141 548 1555.

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