When he was 15, David Ralfe loved a girl called Kate. Well, to be precise, he “loved her he loved her he loved her” (exclamation mark, exclamation mark, exclamation mark.) Enough to save her from the eating disorder slowing taking over her existence? Well, he was going to darn well try.
Tell Me Anything is a shocking, frank and painfully sweet portrayal of teenage romance with an anorexia sufferer. Alone on stage with an arrangement of tubes and an inflatable dolphin, Ralfe gives a wide-eyed portrayal of teenage naivety, frustration with the system – and above all, the utter helplessness of someone watching the person they love starve themselves.
The show’s premise has invited some criticism: after all, Kate was the one with the illness. Why not tell it from her perspective? And no doubt there are aspects of living with an eating disorder that Ralfe fails to address in this one-man show. But on the other hand, there’s something wonderful in his approach. See, Kate was a very ill teenage girl – but she was also his girlfriend. They went to record stores together, cuddled in parks, laid gazing into each other’s eyes during emosh songs – oh, and at that party last Friday? Yeah, they had sex in the conservatory.
In telling Kate’s story, Ralfe separates this hippie, violin-playing, loved-up teen from the illness she believed was part of her. He doesn’t beat around the bush: his girlfriend’s illness saw her starve herself, lie to him, make herself sick, cut herself, and obsessively compile “thinspiration” lists late into the night. It was a shock when Ralfe mentioned such things so frankly – and for those sensitive to these kinds of images, it might not be the right time to come and see the show. But the overarching message is this: Kate was Kate. Kate from the girls’ school. Kate who collected ticket stubs. Kate whose jumper David wore to Year 11 Creative Writing Club. Kate who struggled to eat. But still Kate. And therein lies the unique selling point of Ralfe’s approach. Given an outsider’s perspective, we get to know a teenage girl who was always separate from her illness – but just couldn’t see it.
In control yet vulnerable, serious but also deftly funny, Ralfe handles a tough topic with reassuring sensitivity. He’s just one man telling a story – but the attention he commands from his audience is extraordinary. Nonetheless, some aspects of the show do feel a bit disconnected: for example, we never really see how recent ex-girlfriend Julia fits into the story. And while Ralfe makes several points about male mental health and the need to be open, we’re left somewhat in the dark about his own mental state. There are hints, sure – from the panicked rearranging of his tubes to off-hand remarks about therapy – but this coyness makes things a little uncomfortable. It’s somewhat ironic that in a play called Tell Me Anything, we’re actually told very little.
A little awkward, a little rough around the edges, Tell Me Anything is nonetheless heartfelt, poignant and extremely important. Kate’s story is one we needed to hear – and you know what? This was probably the way we needed to hear it.
‘Tell Me Anything’ is running at the Bike Shed Theatre from 16-20 May. For more details, visit the Bike Shed website.