If you can get to Leeds, you must see this play. Powerful, moving, and thought provoking in equal measure, this is great theatre. At its heart, The Lemon Princess tells the story of a father’s love for his teenage daughter, as she is transformed from a spirited young woman into a dependent and terminally ill patient, brain injured by the neurodegenerative condition variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
Although billed as a fictional account of a vCJD sufferer, the play draws heavily on director Ruth Carney’s conversations with Stephen Forber, whose daughter died from the disease in 2001. With access to Stephen’s diaries, and though her own research, Ruth developed the project into a wide ranging piece that also examines the politics surrounding vCJD and its link to mad cow disease—bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The play exposes theUKgovernment’s desire to avoid serious damage to the British beef industry, even in the face of growing evidence of a potential risk from eating infected meat.
The action begins in 1995 and follows Mike, a comedian at a Leeds club, and his daughter Becky, through her early symptoms, diagnosis, and experimental treatment in New Yorkfor vCJD. Becky’s initial clinical improvement raises everyone’s hopes, and Mike gives her the nickname Lemon Princess as she gradually takes on the yellow pigment of her medication. But the treatment proves to be too toxic and has to be stopped. Mike becomes desperate as he watches his daughter deteriorate further.
The playwright, Rachael McGill, describes the play as political theatre, and it certainly raises questions about what governments choose to tell the public. But there are also lessons about the self serving interests of the media, and how professional rivalries within academia can work against the interests of patients. Yet despite tackling these weighty issues, this is still a hugely entertaining, funny, and accessible play. At times highly televisual—cutting between scenes at breakneck speed—and with a strong narrative, it seems likely that the television executives will be beating a path to the writer’s door.
An ambitious project, the play could be criticised for tackling too many issues surrounding vCJD. Yet the uncompromisingly honest central story of Mike’s struggle to save his child anchors the disparate parts firmly together.
But questions remain about the blurring of fact and fiction in the play. When we see scenes from the BSE inquiry, it is not clear what is verbatim text and what is dramatic licence. Rachael McGill explains: “The BSE inquiry in the play contains much verbatim material… If anything, I have toned down the politics because on stage the truth would have looked like caricature.” But this still leaves a sense of unease at having to trust the playwright’s interpretation of some of the testimony.
Although we saw a preview performance, the production seemed remarkably tight and polished. And despite some variability in the characterisations—there are 13 parts played by just five actors—this is a strong cast, with two outstanding performances.
Ian Reddington, who plays Becky’s father, Mike, conveys such a degree of raw emotion, of a parent battling against both internal demons and establishment forces, that by the end you are overwhelmed by the sheer numbing grief of his loss. “I saw her first five steps and her last five,” he tells us in his final speech. And Samantha Robinson, who effortlessly moves between playing research scientist Dr Caroline Harding and Becky’s 9 year old sister, Charlie, brings a physicality and veracity to the child’s role that is both instantly believable and hugely impressive.
The Lemon Princess is a powerhouse of a production that should generate discussion and debate among the public, the medical and scientific communities, and perhaps even reach the ears of our political masters. Miss it at your peril.
Becky Chapman is 17 and has everything to live for. She does a double act with her stand-up comedian dad, Mike, and he is certain that she has got the talent to make it as a singer on her own. Then, just when she is about to go solo, she becomes moody and starts falling over. Almost overnight she turns from a sparky teenager into a dribbling wreck. Variant CJD is destroying her brain and it is going to destroy her happy family too.
Inspired by the true story of Rachel Forber, this is a harrowing and heartbreaking tale of lives wrecked by a government more concerned with protecting farming and business interests than making public the research of scientists who were increasingly convinced that BSE in cattle posed serious health risks to the population. It is an evening that makes you so indignant, you feel like rushing out of the theatre, seeking out John Selwyn Gummer and shoving a beefburger down his throat.
The show is quietly moving in its depiction of the Chapman family and in particular of Mike: he is presented with enormous sympathy, but he is never the heroic father ofHollywoodmyths who refuses to give up on his dying child. On the contrary, he is wonderfully and pitifully human as he tells terrible, politically incorrect jokes and displays a pigheadedness in his determination to keep Becky alive, however great her suffering.
The human interest aspect of the show is strongly written, but the evening tries too hard to be two plays in one. The factual element of the story is clumsily handled, with far too much reliance on exposition. But it is heavy stuff, full of ordinary heroes and a wide array of villains – dissembling politicians and self-serving scientists and journalists – and the story is a sharp reminder of moment when many of us lost our innocence and really stopped believing what governments told us.