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Image of poster for Afterbirth

Postpartum psychosis is a severe mental illness which affects 1,400 new mothers each year in the UK, starting suddenly after childbirth. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, depression and confusion. A new play, after birth, created in collaboration with NDPH researchers, aims to raise awareness of this often-frightening condition, and celebrate the resilience of the women who overcome it. after birth launches this week at The North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford, with performances on Thursday 10, Friday 11 and Saturday 12 June.

The story centres on Ann, a holiday camp entertainer and new mum, who finds herself stranded on a medieval island in a Venetian lagoon, battling to save herself and her new baby from malevolent plague doctors. As the play develops, it becomes clear that these scenes are filtered through Ann’s postpartum psychosis, which has come upon her following the birth of her child.

Imaginatively staged, with elements of stand-up and a dynamic original sound score, after birth takes us on a journey of recovery as Ann determines to come through her illness and make a good life for herself and her child.

after birth grew out of collaboration between researchers at NDPH’s National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU), and Oxford-based playwright Zena Forster. NPEU conducts rigorous research to generate evidence to improve the care provided to women, babies and families during pregnancy, childbirth, the newborn period and early childhood. Their annual reports have consistently shown that in the UK suicide stubbornly remains the leading direct cause of maternal death between six weeks and one year after birth. NPEU were keen to collaborate with Zena to find new ways of disseminating their findings with a view to effecting change.

Zena interviewed many women with lived experience of postpartum psychosis, travelling miles around the country. Short extracts of the resulting play were performed to over 180 people at the Old Fire Station Theatre in Oxford and at the 2019 NDPH Annual Symposium, with critical audience acclaim at both.

after birth was awarded the Propeller 2020 opportunity by North Wall, Oxford, to be developed into a full-length theatre production. Besides the three performances, a film of the staged performance of after birth will be made, and NPEU are investigating how this could be used in both therapeutic settings and in health professional education.

Commenting on after birth, Professor Rachel Rowe, Senior Health Services Researcher, National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, said: ‘Through after birth we hope to engage audiences with research evidence about maternal mental health, to raise awareness, reduce stigma, encourage discussion and ultimately improve care and outcomes for women affected by postnatal mental illness. The play promotes some key public health messages about postnatal mental health, but importantly it’s also funny and full of hope – it should be a really good night out.’

Playwright Zena Forster said: ‘Just as the women I interviewed didn’t want to be defined by their illness, so after birth isn’t a play about psychosis, it’s a play about a tough, witty woman who happens to have psychosis. The women I interviewed were amazing – courageous, inspirational and often very funny, it was natural that my protagonist was like that too.’

Grace Duggan, Director for after birth, added: ‘We want people to start talking about post-partum psychosis and continue the discussion about the pressure of motherhood. Through our characters and with this story we hope to expose it all and have a laugh along the way.’

after birth is supported by the national charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis (APP), who worked closely with Zena on its development.

To book tickets, visit The North Wall website.