A piece of Demon review – secrets and cynicism in an adult eating disorder unit

For anyone who has ever lived with an eating disorder, Laura Waldren’s Papatango Prize-winning game feels like a blow to the head. It is set in an adult eating disorder ward – a land separated from the rest of life, where patients fight their internal voices in an attempt to get better. Their main nurses treat them like little children, telling them what to eat, when to use the phone and not to use ‘negative’ words. But if you’re under the power of a secret demon, can it help at all?

Eighteen-year-old Sam (Hannah Saxby) arrives at the ward, just after a period in a similar children’s institution. She wants to become desperate enough to go to college and start over. Zoe (Sirine Saba) is in her forties, a cynical revolving door patient who has so far been unable to escape the grip of her disease. Group sessions, meal plans and physical checkups are the foundation of the broken, chronically understaffed system they are pushed through. Honesty is required for the process to work, they are repeatedly told, but the lies about relapses and secret bouts of exercise come easily to the women.

Revolving door… Sirine Saba as Zoe. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Under the direction of George Turvey, Some Demon erupts into hellish, unrelenting trauma. The music blares and then hangs on repeat. Talking Heads’ The Road to Nowhere plays loudly and feels like a hopeless allegory. When the plates are served, the women shake, willing to defy their own screaming thoughts. But it’s a near-impossible task when eating disorders are wild animals that eat people from the inside out and destroy everything they hold dear.

And yet we see some of them succeeding – although the reasons why some people can soften the voices of their eating disorders and others cannot are a complicated minefield. Waldren’s play explores the complicated contradictions between push and pull: the patients want ‘a normal life’, but are afraid of who they will become.

However, there are gaps in the writing. We hear little about the beginning of the formation of an eating disorder. The characters’ home lives are largely overlooked, and so aspects of their personalities are left in the shadows. It’s too long (almost three hours) and brutal night, but it’s reality. Full of setbacks and inner conflicts, it burns.

Bee the Arcola Theatre, Londonfrom June 14 to July 6