Mental Notes

Artsenta, Dunedin

16/03/2018 - 17/03/2018

Dunedin Fringe 2018

Production Details

Mental Notes is about building empathy and understanding through conversation and connection. Suitcase Theatre invites you into the hearts and minds of people living with mental illness, and those on the outside looking in.  Think, talk, laugh….and drink tea.  With thought provoking perspectives and humour as our guide, because admittedly at times, we are all a bit mental!


Runtime 50 mins

Ticket price range $15

Booking details

Theatre ,

50 minutes

Surprisingly luminous, controlled and lucid

Review by Terry MacTavish 19th Mar 2018

The aptly named Suitcase Theatre is ever-ready to accompany us on the most significant and challenging journeys of all. This bold little theatre company sprang to life in Dunedin four years ago, and I have yet to see it produce something unworthy of its high ideal: to make theatre with heart.

In between jolly excursions into the community to recite poetry from atop a suitcase at markets, wharves or on street-corners, the company has joined with organisations like Rape Crisis to present shows dealing with deeply serious issues.

For Mental Notes, Suitcase is working in partnership with the Life Matters – Suicide Prevention Trust, and performing in Artsenta, an award-winning arts studio for people in the mental health community.

To initiate conversations about mental health, the collective has gathered true stories from our own community, wrangled them into an absorbing script and, with experienced actors, brought them to vivid life. The Facebook page has prepared us well with a series of portraits of the production team, explaining just what the show means to them. The group photos with ecstatic dogs and rainbow umbrellas on a sunny Dunedin beach are a mood-lifter in themselves. 

Cheerful bunting defines the acting space in the pleasant Artsenta venue, and the simple set is composed of suitcases that are swiftly and efficiently redeployed to support the action. The costumes are attractive, bright sky-blue tee shirts sporting the striking poster design (a head exploding with tiny monsters) but each with individual quirky details: back-lacing, zig-zig fringing, even appliqued sharks.

Their experience of street theatre has ensured Suitcase quickly establish a rapport with their audience, who for the most part respond with warmth and understanding, perhaps recognising stories of their own. Despite moments of despondency and desperation, the production is surprisingly upbeat, with some wicked humour and flights of pure poetry.

While I appreciate the authenticity of verbatim theatre, I must admit to a preference for elegantly crafted dialogue, performed with all an actor’s skills of voice and movement. The balance here seems right too: compelling stories told by each character, broken by lively choral passages, including quick-fire snatches detailing the treatment – well, torture – of ‘mad’ people throughout history. (New Zealand’s eugenics record is a bit of a shock.)

That the script is satisfyingly literate is chiefly due to Gretel Newman-Sugrue, a remarkably original artist who also composed and performed the captivating music that greeted us on arrival. There is a sweetly wistful quality to her voice and the songs are catchy, especially ‘Forks and Spoons’, with Dylan Shield’s accompanying music contributing to the underlying optimism of Mental Notes. Altogether it is a surprisingly luminous work from such a dark place. I don’t know what sort of hysteria I was expecting, but this is controlled and lucid.

The actors are individually assured and work beautifully as an ensemble. The chorus work is polished and pacey, and when a character speaks, the others watch with palpable sympathy. Each actor has at least one speech that will linger in my mind. I am especially moved by Sofie Welvaert’s gentle description of the way suicidal thoughts fade as she sits on a beach and strokes a golden dog, “the grey receding to the corners of my mind”.

Kimberley Buchan is very funny in her take on Visualisation Therapy, defiantly naming the nagging voice in her head ‘Mr Prissypants’. Laura Wells is convincing as the Good Samaritan who struggles unsuccessfully with a paranoid friend, while Vincent Blatt takes on the Ketamine Clinical Trial. Gabby Golding is particularly deft with bitter throwaway lines (“I want an open casket so everyone can see my grouchy expression”), and Dylan Shield speaks for those who call ourselves normal and yearn to give a little of our happiness to those without it.

The conclusion, ‘Blue Skies Again’, is deliberately uplifting, reflecting the concern for the emotional well-being of the audience that has been evident throughout, beginning with trigger warnings (though as we are reminded, tsunami warnings are not very effective in preventing tsunamis) and ending with offers of cups of tea, bikkies and hugs. Many are eager to stay and share their histories. For some of the capacity audience this has been, beyond merely enthralling theatre, a truly reaffirming and mind-expanding trip with Suitcase. Theatre with heart, indeed.


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