First published in The Times, Monday August 22 2016
The term “national treasure” has become a little devalued in recent years, but back in the Eighties and early Nineties, the television star Anneka Rice really did inspire love and admiration among the British public for her endlessly cheery, empathic persona and the plucky “can do” spirit she embodied in her long-running reality show, Challenge Anneka. She was everyone’s kindly fairy godmother in fluorescent shell suit top, leggings and bum bag.
The name alone is probably enough to attract fringe-goers of a certain vintage over the door, even if Sophie Winter’s one-woman show features only the briefest appearance from the legend herself, via pre-recorded video clip. Instead, Winter seeks to invoke the spirit of Anneka to explore and surmount the chronic anxiety she has lived with for most of her adult life.
Though this sounds like a heavy premise, the show wears its examination of mental health issues lightly. Winter, in blonde wig and headset, welcomes her audience with cartons of Ribena and packets of Haribo Bears (her favoured childhood accompaniment to weekly episodes of Challenge Anneka) before introducing us to Hollie, a young woman so raddled by daily life that she can no longer cope with her job as a teacher or her regular commute on the tube.
Winter, a versatile actress, inhabits all the roles in Hollie’s story, through an ambitious mix of live performance and filmed segments. Her impersonation of Rice leaves something to be desired yet there are plenty of fine supporting characterisations, including Hollie’s unsympathetic male boss, a wide-eyed schoolboy and assorted mental health experts. The most poignant moment comes towards the end when Hollie starts berating herself for her affliction, as though someone from her privileged background should really know better.
There are a couple of hiccups and hesitations in the interaction between the various elements of the performance, and the narrative does rather run out of steam towards the end. Still, Winter is a talented, engaging storyteller and her treatment of mental health and its stigma is well-judged and quietly moving.