“I’m a little bit OCD”. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard someone use - but if you see The Neat Freak, you’ll never be tempted to reach for that glib metaphor yourself. This short but powerful piece is both informative and wrenching, showing the true impact of severe OCD, and delivering a strident call for greater understanding.
The opening sees a nameless young woman writing and re-writing a letter, preparing for what she says might be “the biggest thing I ever do in my life”. It doesn’t take a huge leap of intuition to guess what that thing might be - a fact which lends this short play the requisite dramatic tension. Predominantly, though, the script is an informative memoir: an approachable explanation of how OCD can develop in childhood, and how an inconspicuous seed of a thought can sprout strong and suffocating tendrils.
The symptoms we think we know are all there - the obsessive hand-washing, the repeated lock-checking, the compulsion to follow rituals a precise number of times. But there are deeper insights too, into aspects of the condition that sit less in public consciousness. Lead actor Ellen Larson delivers a haunting performance, as her unnamed character describes a life consumed by groundless guilt and fear: she’s tortured by false memories, convinced that she’s somehow caused her loved ones harm. Most striking of all is the inexorable internal logic, which leads step by step from something fastidious but harmless - using hand-sanitiser every time she touches a bin - to extremes of behaviour which both ravage her body and cut her off from the world.
Larson is accompanied on stage by a four-member chorus, who together represent the voices and compulsions in her character’s mind. Occasionally they’re seductive - tempting her towards a damaging thought or deed - but mostly they’re hostile and threatening, an embodiment of self-loathing and disdain. Sometimes their constant motion did distract me from the narrative but, of course, their restless ever-presence is very much the point. And they work with Larson to deliver some striking visual metaphors: weighing on her shoulders, twisting at her gut.
This is a short play - on the day I attended, just twenty-five minutes - but at this level of intensity, that’s just the right length to feel manageable and complete. The fact-heavy monologue never grows stultifying, and the harrowing narrative never slips into self-pity. On occasion I felt the direction succumbed to physicality for physicality’s sake, but that’s the only bone I’d pick with an impeccably-rehearsed and skilfully delivered production.
In a sense this transcends theatre: it’s more akin to a live-action documentary, or a med-school class made engaging and real. And, white it’s far from easy to watch at times, it ends with at least a measure of hope. Everyone should see The Neat Freak.