Inspired by actor-playwright Eva O’Connor’s real-life experience, Overshadowed is an uncompromising but ultimately inspiring study of the psychology of anorexia. The story’s built around Imogene (played by Roseanne Lynch), a likeable young woman in her final years at school – who wants nothing more than to keep herself in shape, burning up calories with a skipping rope. It’s a fixation, perhaps an obsession, but not obviously a problem. Until, one day, she invites anorexia into her life.
And this is not an abstract invitation. Anorexia is a character in this show – albeit a character that only Imogene can see. It’s given the name of Caol, has intestines arranged along its back, and it’s played by O’Connor in a morph suit.
It sounds bizarre, but it proves an inspired gambit – approaching an uninviting real-world topic using a trope that’s familiar from fantasy films. The Gollum-like Caol is a seductive and riddling creature, who speaks to Imogene only in grimly humorous rhyme. O’Connor is mesmerising in the role, possessively entwining herself with Lynch, convincingly depicting how Imogene sees her anorexia as a form of protection from the world.
“Meddling sister, interfering, can’t bear to see you disappearing,” runs one of O’Connor’s couplets. Caol means to imply that Imogene’s sister is jealous of her slender body, but we can see the poignant truth behind the remark: both Imogene’s sister and mother are consumed by worry, yet have no idea what to do. Overshadowed eloquently captures the isolating effect of Imogene’s condition, turning family mealtimes into tense dramas and driving her to push social contact away. Her estrangement from her sister is especially heart-rending, culminating in a monologue from actor Anne O’Riordan which forms the centrepiece for, and explains the title of, the play.
But this is, ultimately, a hopeful story. Imogene’s true character never quite disappears; occasionally Caol is sleeping, and in those moments we catch sight of the vivacious teenager once again. She finds support in the end from the most unorthodox of sources, demonstrating that sometimes, a kindred spirit can reach through defences meant to defeat the most well-meaning of friends.
There’s a hint of the deus ex machina about the final resolution, and while that may be realistic – sometimes in life, unexpected shocks trigger unexpected changes – I’d have liked to see Imogene have more agency in the lead-up to the final scenes. The much-anticipated showdown between Imogene and Caol never quite happens either; I simply realised, towards the end, that Caol was no longer on the stage. There’s a tension here between a realistic portrayal of Imogene’s recovery and our expectations of theatrical form, and I fear it may be a subtlety too far in what’s generally a beautifully balanced production.
There’s one theatrical cliché, however, which I’m delighted that O’Connor’s script rejects. Instead of portraying mental illness as an irredeemable tragedy, she presents it as a formidable challenge: a destructive force that, though terrible, can nonetheless be overcome. So Overshadowed succeeds on two levels – as an insightful personal explanation of what it’s like to have anorexia, and as a rallying-cry for belief in recovery. Forgive me, then, for resorting to a cliché of my own… but this is an important play.