Therapy sessions on the radio remind me that really, we are all acting

Susie Orbach's In Therapy has turned from an oddity to a thrilling drama.

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For the second series of In Therapy (weekdays, 12.04pm), the psychotherapist Susie Orbach continues to share sessions with clients in daily, 15-minute programmes. Each starts the same way: the doorbell ringing, Orbach answering, the client puffing up the stairs and settling in to the consulting room. Then begins the talking.

During the airing of the first series last year there was some confusion – a lack of clarity, perhaps – that these “clients” were in fact actors. It couldn’t be any other way, as no therapist would legitimately record such private exchanges.

Primed by Orbach on each character’s basic background and potential problems, what we hear is, in effect, an improvisation. While some listeners have said that this renders the programme little more than an interesting oddity – what exactly is the point of it all? – I find the project compelling. More than anything, it seems to examine (by powerful proxy) questions about performance. Teachers, lawyers, therapists, priests – actors all, to a certain extent.

I put this idea directly to Orbach, over the phone. Doesn’t she find herself, as an analyst, using the same lines, the same gestures and expressions, as an actor on a stage some months in to a long run? She found the question strange – possibly even a little offensive. When I asked her how she could sound so relaxed being recorded in such an unusual situation (and she does, hypnotically so), she answered: “It’s easy. The other person. The quiet of the room . . .” and trailed off.

“Real” or not, it’s all the same to her, and a serious business. Still, I find myself wondering about the character John, who has appeared twice now, and will feature again before the end of the current series. He’s a former union man whose secret affair with a Polish sex worker is collapsing over her admission that she loathed the former Polish president Lech Wałesa. Add to this the complication that John believes Susie is the one woman who might make him physically and emotionally happy in a life together outside the room, and what you have is great plot – with the therapist at its centre.

I assume more series will follow. Like it or not, Orbach is now a de facto dramatist. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world