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The Shape of the Pain: captivating play exploring how complex pain ‘feels’

Dr Jackie Applebee draws new insight from an innovative play combining lighting, visual and sound effects to convey how complex regional pain syndrome ‘feels’

shape of the pain

The Shape of the Pain, based on director Rachel Bagshaw’s personal experience, is currently showing at the Battersea Arts Centre in South London. The play, delivered in a compelling monologue by actor Hannah McPake, is a captivating, fictional portrayal of one woman’s experience of living with complex regional pain syndrome.

The show uses sound and light design throughout, working alongside text projected onto large metal panels comprising the set, to explore the experience of pain in a sense form that the audience can relate too.

We follow the woman’s journey as her pain begins, at age nineteen, after a seemingly trivial injury to her knee and then develops inexplicably into complex regional pain syndrome.

The play focuses on the impact this process has on the woman’s relationship with her male partner, in particular.

Maybe the most helpful thing we can do is acknowledge distress

At the beginning of the relationship he is considerate and understanding, but as time goes on, and they settle into more humdrum routines, he will occasionally forget the third element in the relationship – the pain – and make thoughtless comments.

We feel her anger and frustration building, even though she knows that he is only human, that she shouldn’t expect telepathy, until she explodes – throwing a pan of scrambled eggs at him.

At one point the play gives a vivid portrayal of the affect that advice from health professionals can have: ‘Have you tried…?’ followed by a long list, broken up and interrupted with strobe lighting, seemingly overwhelming the character totally. She describes how her ‘gates’ are disrupted and she can’t switch the pain off.

As doctors we know how difficult it is to treat chronic pain. Most of the drugs don’t work or have intolerable side effects. The rise in the prevalence of addiction to prescribed pain killers is an added concern.

The play made me reflect that maybe the most helpful thing that we can do is to acknowledge distress and try to understand. To be there, to listen but to resist continually trying to find answers, because often there aren’t any.

The only criticism is its sole focus on the woman and her pain; it would be interesting, maybe as a sequel, to see a monologue from the point of view of her partner.

All in all this is a very good production and Hannah McPake delivers it well.

Don’t miss it if it comes to a theatre near you.

Dr Jackie Applebee is a GP in Tower Hamlets, east London. 

The Shape of the Pain is showing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 10 March, and will be touring at other venues in the future – dates and venues to be announced

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