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  Zebra Girl Mad, Quite Mad
Year: 2021
Director: Stephanie Zari
Stars: Tom Cullen, Sarah Roy, Jade Anouka, Anna Wilson-Jones, Isabelle Connolly, Moyo Akande, Angela Yeoh, Henry Douthwaite, Daisy Mayer, Buckso Dhillon-Woolley, Siobhan Athwal, Gemma Park
Genre: Comedy, Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Catherine (Sarah Roy) is having a nightmare, where she can hear sinister sounds and a creeping sense that all is not well - she cannot turn on the bedside lamp, either. Then she wakes up and the light works again, but she now wonders where her husband has gone, and sets off around the large, rural mansion they share to seek him out. When she discovers him, she has a kitchen knife in her hand and noting what he is looking at on the internet, she whips him around and plunges the blade into his eye and through his brain, murdering him. Now she has to decide her next move - dispose of the body would be an obvious step.

But she will need some help, which arrives in the form of old schoolfriend Anita (Jade Anouka). Zebra Girl began life as a one-woman theatrical show, also starring stage star Roy, and was adapted into a relatively brief film version which tackled the problem of what to do in translating an internal set of dramatics and making them external so the cinema audience could understand what the lead character was going through. Supposedly an examination of mental illness, it set out its stall early on: this was not some sensitive tale of a young woman trying to find solace in marriage and potential motherhood, though that was an aspect to it, it was more a black comedy about a nutter who turns to murder when she has trouble with her medication.

If the filmmakers thought that was helpful, then you would hate to see them make something critical. Certainly you could make a critical drama about mental illness, from the patients' reliance on victimhood as a way of seeing themselves which leaves them struggling to move on, to the lack of real insight an oversubscribed mental health sector can display, though no fault of their own (or few faults, anyway). But to fall back on the old tropes reaching back to the horror fiction of the twentieth century, and well before, depicting the illness as something to be feared, or here, something to be laughed at, was a curious path to take in a century where the topic was hotter than ever.

Catherine's destructive qualities are turned outwards, making her little better than one of the psychos which populated many a shocker unironically showing the mad to be a severe danger to others, when in fact the sufferers are far more likely to be a danger to themselves. Nevertheless, Roy grinned manically through her role, which might have succeeded in the theatre but as with the whole production came across as mannered rather than realistic. Fair enough, maybe director Stephanie Zari did not intend this to be true to life, and there were assuredly signs she was ramping up the stylisation with each successive scene, but then the screenplay attempted to explain away Catherine's insanity with a triggering experience in her childhood where she was abused by her father.

And now suspects her husband (Tom Cullen) wishes to do likewise to their prospective child, leading to a twist that was easy to misinterpret given how it was almost thrown away in the story's death throes. If this was the tone of the play, then it did appear very theatrical even with the invention Zari brought to the presentation, but it tended to swamp what was a very pat plot that fumbled its psychology, relied on spiders for easy cringes and used the word "retard" as an insult more than once, suggesting it was not as sympathetic to mental issues as it might have liked - or should have been. It was not a disaster, it was stylish enough in its way to be artistically provocative, but you did wonder if everyone had thought through a throwback to hothouse melodrama with little updating of the themes. Though it did not always feel like it, progress was always being made; perhaps if this had been a period piece, placed firmly in the nineteen-sixties, for instance, it would have been a more satisfying watch. Music by Caspar Leopard.

[Zebra Girl is released in cinemas from: Friday 28th May 2021.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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