The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Spring 2010
About halfway through Mark Haddon's drama a character suffering from bipolar disorder tells a lovely fable - actually, the text of a children's book she's written - about a beautiful maiden and a monster, that is a touching evocation of the experience of two very different personalities inhabiting the same body.
But it belongs in a children's book, or a psychology textbook, not a play. It tells us everything and shows us nothing.
Polar Bears is Haddon's first stage play - he's a novelist best known for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, told from the perspective of an autistic child - and much of the rest of the play either tells without showing, or shows without guiding us to understand what we're seeing.
As a result, it is far more successful in occasional parts than as a whole.
Kay is bipolar, swinging from suicidal lows to uncontrollable highs. Her mother cares for her, while using that caring as an excuse not to have a life of her own.
Her husband loves unconditionally and lives on the hope that that will be enough. Her brother neither understands nor sympathises, but his coldness actually comes across as the healthiest response.
A string of short scenes that move back and forth in time, and in and out of various characters' fantasies (so that we are sometimes not sure where or when we are, or in whose head we are), give us a collection of impressions of what it is like to be manic-depressive and, perhaps more tellingly, what the cost is to those around the bipolar person.
Some of the images are strong, as when Kay looks up an old boyfriend who somehow turns into Jesus, or when the titular imaginary bears are either threatening or exciting depending on where she is in her cycle.
But they remain a collection of impressions, illustrated excerpts from a textbook rather than a coherent picture, much less a story.
Jodhi May keeps Kay real and sympathetic through the jumble of ages and moods in which we see her, and Paul Hilton makes the brother a believably complex and even self-contradictory character.
Richard Coyle as the husband and Celia Imrie as the mother work admirably but cannot make their characters more dimensional and other-than-textbook figures than the author has written.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review