Review – ‘Beyond My Control’ – Exeter Northcott Theatre/University of Exeter

Exeter Northcott Theatre in association with the University of Exeter
Thursday 9 March 7.00pm, Exeter Northcott Theatre

Performed by: Steve Bennett, Hannah Brooks, Stuart Cottrell, Sally Geake, Ben Gilbert
Directed by: Paul Jepson and Professor John Terry
Dramaturg: Stuart Cottrell

Can performance be used to illustrate mathematical models of epilepsy? Interactive piece ‘Beyond My Control’ makes theoretical research accessible to a mainstream audience, whilst also providing a meaningful reflection on lived experiences of epilepsy. It’s a carefully positioned, funny, and engaging show which is a resounding success in almost every respect, and marks a fascinating start to the collaboration between Exeter Northcott Theatre and academics at the University of Exeter.


Theatrically strong in its simplicity, the piece centres on the relationships between four members of ‘the Brain Family’, while Stuart Cottrell takes on the role of narrator-cum-presenter. Each of the family characters is used to illustrate a separate region of a brain. Through scenes of everyday family life and conflict, they represent a whole which – depending upon instructions given by either Cottrell or members of the audience – is either likely to, or unlikely to, experience a seizure. These scenes are intercut by PowerPoint slides offering definitions and diagrams, and audio extracts of interviews with people who have lived experience of epilepsy.

The family scenes are nearly all laugh-out-loud funny, with the four actors portraying easily recognisable archetypes. There’s enough structure to get to the point quickly, but with the fizzing energy of improvisation throughout which allows the audience to feel part of the event – this show is only for them, and will never be re-created in exactly the same way again. And the appearance of putting the actors on the spot (although these four are clearly comfortable, confident improvisers) makes it much easier for some audience members to, when invited, take to the stage themselves to see how their suggestions make a seizure more or less likely to occur.

Cottrell remains assured and charismatic throughout, while the Brain Family show clear intentions and fantastic comic timing. There is a slight lack of coherence in performance style – Bennett and Geake are more broadly comedic, with Geake bordering on pantomime when provoked, while Brooks and Gilbert play out a slightly more naturalistic relationship unless explicitly instructed to ramp it up. Brooks took fewer opportunities than the others to really distinguish her Daughter character, but later showcased an enviable mastery over the complicated mathematical jargon. One thing missing from the piece is clarity around a seizure being ‘synchronous’ – whilst the family members did come to agreements which were intended to signify seizure, they were sometimes not given enough time to calm down from shouting matches. It felt as if the scenes which ended with the family dissatisfiedly repeating ‘right’ or ‘fine’ were closest to the synchronised wave pattern of a seizure, and the calm feeling of going to sleep which one of the audio interviews described.

The audio testimony plays out as necessary contrast to the laugh-out-loud Brain Family, but rather than falling into the cliché of being pointedly sombre or ‘gritty’, these recordings simply are what they are – real. This is the reality of living with epilepsy that, as the play points out, is not apparent just by looking at someone. And rather than feeling like downbeat soundbites where the audience is lectured at while waiting for the fun to start again, the voices are given enough time to become recognisable and tell complete anecdotes, which hit home all the more for being the unperformed reality of family life, childhood, and growing up with epilepsy.

By focusing on a condition which most people are likely to carry some misapprehensions about – and particularly by exploring mathematical models which would usually be unintelligible to anyone outside that field – this company have hit on a performance which will be a learning curve for almost every audience, and which plays out as vibrantly in a theatre as it undoubtedly will when it tours to schools and colleges. A well-crafted, innovative, and vital production.