A Gala for Mental Health
Returning to the Fringe for a second year, the Mental Health Foundation's gala aims to raise funds and awareness among festival audiences
'Something extraordinary happened at the Fringe last year,' says Andrew Eaton-Lewis, programmer of the Gala for Mental Health and arts lead with the Mental Health Foundation. 'It had something to do with the death of Robin Williams – which had been a big talking point the previous year, as it happened just before the Fringe started – and something to do with Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn's show Fake It 'Til You Make It, which generated a huge buzz almost immediately.' It was also the year that the first Gala for Mental Health happened during the Fringe, partly as a fundraiser for the MHF, and partly to capture this wave.
'Fake It 'Til You Make It was a show about taking care of someone else, which everyone can relate to even if they've not gone through mental health problems themselves,' says Eaton-Lewis, who is well-placed to notice such things as the festival editor of The Scotsman. He also points to Le Gateau Chocolat as another high-profile 2015 show on the subject, noting that the last gala started with Paul Merton doing improv and ended with an opera-singing cabaret performer paying tribute to the theatremaker Adrian Howells, who had taken his own life the previous year. 'We seem to have reached a point where talking openly about mental health issues in theatre or in comedy has hit the mainstream.'
This year's gala, he says, will focus explicitly on comedy, because he's seen the tide shifting in that regard over the last 12 months, as well. As in 2015, this year's gala will be hosted by Felicity Ward, who has followed up last year's show about the anxiety of having irritable bowel syndrome with another show about mental health, 50% More Likely to Die. Also appearing will be Chris Gethard, whose show Career Suicide is literally about suicide; Susan Calman, who has written a book on living with depression; Richard Gadd, who discusses perceptions of masculinity and how that affects our mental state; and Martha McBrier, whose Japanese Boy is about the time she took a group of mental health patients to a pool tournament.
'The whole show was supposed to be jokes about mental health statistics and up until six weeks ago it was,' says Ward of her own work. 'Then I left a bag on the bus that had my laptop and keys and wallet in it, and now the show is about a lady with control issues who loses her bag on a bus. The seriousness is already in the subject, so all I have to worry about is the humour and making sure the audience are on the same side as me. If they're looking at me from the other side of the glass they might pity me, which is the death of comedy.'
The Fringe is the world in microcosm, says Eaton-Lewis, or at least a part of it. 'If you want to know what the big political issues of our time are, or how social attitudes are changing, look to the Fringe. The number of Fringe performers who are now doing shows talking openly about mental health suggests attitudes are changing in the wider world too, although there's still a long way to go. Comedians feeling able to talk openly about anxiety or depression is one thing; teachers, labourers, nurses, managers and so on feeling they can do it without fear of repercussions is another.'
The Gala for Mental Health, Pleasance Dome, 17 Aug, 11pm, £10.
Felicity Ward: 50% More Likely to Die, Pleasance Dome, until 29 Aug (not 15), 9pm, £10–13.50 (£9--£12.50).