Every year now, it seems, mental health is named as a theme of the Edinburgh festival. Public campaigns encourage us to talk about it, as if that alone is a cure. But we’re no longer short of conversations about mental illness. Instead, as Demi Nandhra’s solo show pinpoints, it is treatment that’s wanting.
Life Is No Laughing Matter focuses on Nandhra’s experience of depression and the inadequate care she was offered when she sought help. One doctor prescribes exercise and bananas; another suggests that Nandhra might feel better if she got married. The internet, meanwhile, tells her that getting a dog could be the answer. Nandhra sends up each of these suggestions in turn, starjumping while stuffing bananas into her mouth or chasing her gleefully disobedient pup around the stage.
Humour becomes Nandhra’s arsenal as she confronts her depression and shoots down the laughable advice she receives. While at times this approach can feel bitty, the best sequences marry silly images with bitter realities. Watching Nandhra slump in a yellow beanbag outfit, visibly deflating, is funny until suddenly it’s not.
For all its deceptive lightness, Life Is No Laughing Matter is making a serious and necessary intervention. Like Caroline Horton’s All of Me, Nandhra’s show diagnoses depression as a structural as well as a personal issue. Mental illness and its treatment – or lack of treatment – is political. As Nandhra stresses in a rage-fuelled closing monologue, it won’t be solved through stories of recovery, expensive “wellness” products or inspirational hashtags.
Crucially, Nandhra challenges the discourse around depression, which is dominated by statistics about the suicide rate among young white men. As she makes unequivocally clear, access to help is desperately unequal and systemic oppression is one of the greatest strains on mental health. When we talk about depression, we also need to be talking about capitalism and colonialism and racism and sexism and … the list goes on. And we need to be doing more than just talking.