Maimuna Memon stands in the center of a tent at Summerhall surrounded by a plethora of instruments, her brother Yusuf, and Rachel Barnes. London audiences will recognize the artist from productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Ghost Quartet, but this show is Manic Street Creature in its Edinburgh Fringe debut. Memon takes audiences inside the story and point-of-view of Ria, a young woman who moves to London in pursuit of a music career, as she falls in love and wrestles with the traumas burdening both her and her partner.
Inflected by her personal experiences, Memon explores what it is like to care for someone who experiences mental health issues in a musical told as if it is the recording session for a concept album. Playbill Goes Fringe correspondents Leah Putnam and Margaret Hall sat down with the multi-talented artist to discuss the show’s development, its exploration of mental health, and its glimpse at the wall of "compassion exhaustion" care providers sometimes hit.
Tell us a bit about your theatrical and musical background.
Maimuna Memon: I’ve got a very musical family and have played music since I was four. Once at drama school, I started writing music for the shows we were doing and realized I love writing music for theatre. In my career, I’m now kind of 50/50 in terms of writing music for theatre and being an actor. I think there's nothing more empowering than writing your own work, putting it on, and sharing it. It's terrifying but also empowering.
Though this is Ria’s story, there’s a larger story that you’re telling in this show.
It is Ria’s perspective. We don't really know if it's the full truth, but for her, it is what happened. The point of this show is to tell a story about someone who is a mental health carer and what they experience. Having personal experience, I felt it was very important. It’s really hard to talk about it, and it’s really hard to say, “I am out of giving, I can't give anymore.” That's not to say that you don't love that person or want to help. But, there is something called compassion exhaustion. It’s sticky and it's complicated, but it's being human.
What is your pre-show routine?
This has been probably the hardest show I've ever done. Not only because my singing track is very energetic, but also emotionally and physically. I give my whole self to the show. I try and exercise every morning. My show is at 3:55, so from half past 12, I start warming my voice up. The important thing is making sure I am calm, because I have to go so far emotionally in the show.
How many instruments do you play throughout the show?
Five guitars in all different tunings, the piano, and the harmonium.
How do you wind down after the show?
I cool down my voice, bring all the instruments back to our storage space. But, I tend to sit in the dressing room, give myself a second. I have been running away back to my flat after because I find it really difficult to carry on the night. Also, I have learned that sleep is so important. It’s amazing what lack of sleep can do to perspective.
Did you first conceive the story as being told through the framing of a concept album recording session?
That's always been always been the case. Initially, I was going to write it without any spoken word. Then I realized there were a lot of sticky things I wanted to talk about, and I think sometimes one can be seduced by music and not fully listen to the lyrics. There were some moments it was very important to speak so that Ria, as a character, felt like a grounded, real human being.
Was Manic Street Creature always going to be a three-hander?
I first thought it was going to be a one-woman show. But, as someone who arranges her own music, I wanted it to have a big sound. Then, I wanted it to be a five-hander. Then I thought, it’s Ria’s story. And with Fringe budget, we didn't have enough money to have a five-person band, so we limited it to three. I think that was serendipitous. Five would have been too much in that space. We still create this really big sound. It's intimate, and it feels like there's space for it to grow if it has another life.