MiNDFOOD reviews: Tell Me I’m Here

By Gill Canning

MiNDFOOD reviews: Tell Me I’m Here
This story of a young man’s battle with schizophrenia is an emotional tour de force.

In 1961, Anne Deveson’s son, Jonathan, was born with a cerebral haemorrhage. By the time Jonathan was a teenager, he was acting strangely and eventually, as his mental health deteriorated, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His slide into severe illness, drug use, homelessness, and his eventual suicide at 24, were all chronicled in Deveson’s moving 1991 memoir, Tell Me I’m Here. Now that book has been adapted by playwright, Veronica Nadine Gleeson into a play at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney.

Anne Deveson was a journalist, broadcaster and author who gave everything she had to save her son from losing his hold on reality. On stage, veteran Australian actress Nadine Gleeson both narrates their story and portrays Anne with maturity and an emotional fortitude that belies her slight frame. As Jonathan, Tom Conroy gives a physically draining, tour-de-force performance of a sweet young boy whose brain illness engages him in a tragic tug-of-war against the love of his family – until he can withstand it no longer.

The supporting cast of Jana Zvedeniuk playing Jonathan’s sister, Georgia (who grows up to be a celebrated novelist) and Raj LaBade playing his brother, Joshua are outstanding. But the relationship between mother and son is so exquisitely characterised, as to make the audience utterly convinced of – and moved by – their emotional bond.

The set design by Stephen Curtis is mostly simply a long kitchen table and a bursting bookshelf depicting Anne’s home, and crucially, a whiteboard wall the length of the stage on which Jonathan illustrates his terrible descent into madness, including a chilling reminder to himself: “DON’T HARM ANNE”.

Tell Me I’m Here, dealing as it does with the loss of a young man’s life and the inability of Australia’s mental health system at that time to do enough to help him, is by definition, harrowing. However, it is equally about a family’s valid and ongoing attempt to support their son and brother through his life, and the love and support they all give each other – even when Joshua feels unseen by his overburdened mother and Georgia is exhausted by her brother’s violent outbursts.     

     

Youth mental illness was of great concern before the COVID-19 pandemic and for many, the past two and a half years have only exacerbated existing conditions and incidence. After Jonathan’s death, Anne became instrumental in founding the Schizophrenia Australia Foundation, now SANE (which offers connection and community to people with complex mental health issues and their families). It’s unlikely there would be many in the audience who would not have been touched in some way by the vicissitudes of living with mental illness in a friend, family member or themselves, and their standing ovation demonstrated appreciation for the brilliant telling of this titanic love story. As Anne says, “This story is as big as all of us. Bigger.”

 

Tell Me I’m Here

Belvoir St Theatre

20 August – 25 September, 2022

belvoir.com.au

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