Writer and actress Caroline Horton has turned her own experience of an eating disorder into a play, as she explains to Roz Laws .
THERE’S a telling moment when I ask Caroline Horton whether she could see someone else perform her role in Mess.
She has written and stars in the very personal play, which is embarking on a UK tour. Could she trust her words to be spoken by another actress?
After a pause, Birmingham-based Caroline says: “Perhaps, at some stage, but the control freak in me would probably hate it. It feels like my baby.
“It is so personal and feels like a really delicate piece of work. It balances quite precariously between moments of humour and real pain.”
Mess is described as a “funny, moving new play with songs”, based on Caroline’s experiences of anorexia. It was developed with the help of experts from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, winning the Stage Award for Best Ensemble.
It features three actors as Josephine, Boris and Sistahl, who are struggling to put on a play about Josephine’s anorexia and recovery.
“We’ve taken a real situation and turned it into something theatrical,” says Caroline, who lives in Hall Green with her husband.
“It’s about how difficult it is to deal with this stuff, especially for the friends and family of someone with anorexia. Anyone who’s been around an eating disorder worries about getting it wrong, not knowing how to help or what to say.
“People feel very helpless, but I hope that they feel understood when watching Mess. It’s been a relief for my friends and family to see it.
“It deals with misconceptions about anorexia. The biggest one is that it’s all about food. That’s how the illness manifests itself, but it’s more of a symptom than a cause. To understand it you have to look for other things.
“For me it was more about anxiety and a form of depression. Anorexia is about having control over something. It’s addictive as well – that’s not as understood as it should be.”
Caroline, 31, grew up near Lichfield. Anorexia first began to take over her life in her mid-teens, although she admits it’s hard to pin down exactly when it all began.
“You don’t realise for a long time that there’s anything wrong, that it’s anything other than a diet going a bit far, or being a bit fussy about food and worrying too much about exercise and your body,” remembers Caroline.
“I didn’t realise I had problems for a long time as I kept it relatively under control.
“It escalated when I was studying English Literature at Cambridge University and gradually I realised that I needed help, that it wasn’t as under control as I thought.
“I was hospitalised and received therapy.”
Caroline, however, is reluctant to go into any detail about her anorexia. She says: “I’m very aware that people might be at the early stages of the illness and any details might be a triggering factor.”
She won’t say just how thin or ill she got, but she does say: “Unless there is intervention, it doesn’t stop and it is always dangerous. Anorexia is always very serious yet it’s still quite hard to get help.
“I consider myself recovered and most days I’m fine. But I will never not think about it and there are periods when it affects me more than others.
“Mess is ultimately a hopeful and positive story and writing it has been brilliant. If you draw on something that’s a very difficult piece of your past it can be painful, but I wouldn’t have made it if there wasn’t enough distance from my illness for it not to be damaging.”
Caroline has recently been nominated for an Olivier Award. On Sunday she was at the Royal Opera House, along with other nominees like Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball, though she missed out in the category Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.
It’s for her one-woman play You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, about the wartime romance of her French grandmother and Midland grandfather. She wrote it when clearing her grandparents’ Staffordshire home and finding a shoebox containing hundreds of letters.
Caroline has collaborated on shows for theatre groups Shams, Tender Trap and The Plasticine Men and is developing a new show, Kick, with MAKE/SHIFT.
She’s also played the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Cinderella in an alternative version at Warwick Arts Centre.
Caroline is currently working on a play called Islands, about tax havens. It would seem that tax evaders are a million miles away from the anorexia sufferers of Mess, but perhaps not.
“It’s a recurring fascination for me, the way that some people separate themselves off,” she ponders. “They construct different rules and operate differently from wider society. In that way, it’s a bit like Mess.”
* Mess comes to Warwick Arts Centre from May 7-9. For tickets ring 024 7652 4524 or www.warwickartscentre.co.uk.