Review: The Magnetic Diaries. Ledbury's Market Theatre. Tuesday, July 5.

THE Magnetic Diaries is an incredible piece of work: a long poem, essentially a one woman play, a tour de force of modern times, a contemporary tragedy with one dominant, inspired yet unhappy voice.

I settled into my seat at Ledbury's Market Theatre while casting a jaundiced eye at the set, which essentially consisted of two step ladders joined by a plank. I didn't know what to expect. I expect that no one did.

The main character, Emma, played brilliantly by Vey Straker, was the only character on stage. All other characters were off-stage voices: from the dry tone of the doctor to the hurt, confused questions from a husband severely challenged by the serial adultery and alcoholism of his depressed wife.

This, then, is a play about depression; it's about being self-absorbed and intensely alive at the same time. Emma is both those things.

That weird set, with those step-ladders and the plank, is a feature of Emma's universe: her inner life which, at times, is simply everything to her. She climbs those ladders, she takes up her Magnetic Diaries and she sets them down again. There's simply no space for anyone else, not even for her little daughter, Beth.

At times, Emma is not a likeable character. Even when magnetic pulses are passing through her head, as part of the therapy, it's difficult to really like her. This, I think, is part of the plot. Her depression is the plot, in that we start to care, despite ourselves.

It is hard to see how anyone so beautifully alert to the everyday could ever be so depressed. A train "angles its snout through daisied fields and wounded earth". Emma observes how "we race the shadow selves trying to pass us".

None of these exquisite observations will save Emma, because she cannot put the imagery together into a wider, more comprehensive vision.

With a focus on inner-life, psychology and a woman's unhappiness, I was reminded a little of DM Thomas's experimental novel, "The White Hotel".

But this is not to detract from the originality and talent of the author, the poet Sarah James.

The script was adapted from her Forward Prize 'highly commended' collection, and the streams of powerful language and the insights at her command provide much-need evidence that unique, challenging voices can still find a place in modern English poetry and theatre.

The play was performed as part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

By Gary Bills-Geddes.