'Ishbel and I' or 'I'm stuck in first gear'

Ishbel and I, Julia Voce
Written for Time Out

A bright orange tent stands in a field, surrounded by bicycles. We’re in Shooters Hill and Severndroog Castle glints in the evening sun. It looks like a tiny music festival but is actually the set for Julia Voce’s solo piece ‘Ishbel and I’, which explores Voce’s childhood and her family’s struggle with mental illness. It’s a delicate slip of a show but a unique and charming production. 

Voce comes from a family of seven, and the early scenes throb with collective energy. At one point, Voce hides behind the tent and uses a flashlight – switched on and off – to suggest the presence of her many siblings. Later, Voce darts back and forth across the stage, ‘jumping’ between roles with every line of dialogue. With just a few props, Voce and associate director Caroline Horton skilfully suggest a fraught but lively childhood. 

Voce also finds striking ways to explore the impact of mental illness on her family and, in particular, her sister Anne. When Anne returns home from hospital, Voce shields her face with her hands and speaks in a spooky whisper. It is a totally original image, which invokes the mysterious power that Anne clearly held over her younger sisters.

Occasionally, the show is too quirky for its own good: I couldn’t hear some of the whispered sections and a few of the obscure references feel like family ‘in’ jokes. I’m also not convinced about the bicycles. Voce is a compelling performer and those upturned bicycles, as symbolic as they may be, only get in the way.