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Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 22, 2023

Madeleine MacMahon
Photo by Theatre Royal Plymouth
The 2023 Brits Off Broadway Festival kicks off at 59E59 Theaters with the Theatre Royal Plymouth production of Breathless, playwright Laura Horton's tale of compulsion and anxiety that shines a light on the largely misunderstood mental health disorder known as hoarding.

Forget about those images you might have of doddering elders trapped or locking themselves in homes whose every inch is stacked with yellowing newspapers and a lifetime's worth of accumulated flotsam and jetsam. Hoarding comes in many forms, and while its cause is not fully understood, for its victims it boils down to something the play's solo character Sophie (Madeleine MacMahon, an appealing storyteller) explains to us, that her accumulated possessions "are the only thing I feel safe with, have control over."

We learn the particulars of Sophie's struggles gradually and through flashbacks over the course of the 75-minute play. When we first meet her, she is coming to the end of a romantic evening with Jo, the first woman she has dated in her nearly 40 years, and the first intimate partner she has been truly smitten with. But when Jo walks her home and asks to come in, Sophie demurs. And she continues to make excuses as time goes by. "Bed bugs," she says. Or "The toilet's blocked." Or "My sister's staying and she's a twat." Anything but the truth, until, feeling thoroughly rejected, Jo calls it quits.

So what is Sophie's truth? You get a hint from the production's simple set design: a pair of clothes racks with protective plastic bags hanging down. Sophie is a hoarder of clothing. She will not miss a trunk show, a sample sale, or a charity sale to save her soul. Or her health for that matter, explaining that even on the day following major surgery, she ran to one such event and "nearly collapsed on a pensioner."

The playwright, who drew from her own personal story in creating Breathless, wants us to see how people like Sophie are able to function in the "real world," holding down a job, interacting with other people, and even controlling a budget by saving up for these binges. As Sophie makes it clear, she wasn't really buying the designer dresses and ball gowns to actually wear; indeed, she never worried about the fit at all, and many of them were permanently hung or stacked up in piles in her home with their price tags still on them. Their presence alone brought her comfort, and that was enough. Until it no longer was.

The specificity of the subject matter and bare-bones staging may not necessarily be your cuppa, but Breathless is smartly crafted, beautifully performed, and well-paced under Stephanie Kempson's direction. It is an altogether intriguing, sympathetic, and engaging exploration of a difficult and challenging problem.

Through May 7, 2023
59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: