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Telling Lives
Published on Saturday, 16 July 2011

5 stars

United Reformed Church - Blue Room
15-16 Jul, 7:00pm-8:15pm
Reviewed by Ian Hamilton

This is the tale, or tales, of the inmates of Prestwich County Asylum – a mixture of fact and imagination, all the more harrowing because the true-life stories took place as recently as 1914. The performance, billed as “Brechtian”, is an unusual hybrid of documentary, drama, music and dance. According to writer Eric Northey, the title refers to narration but also to the telling nature of these important tales.

After a piano introduction, the inmates enter the stage hidden behind portraits of themselves. We meet director Dr Perceval, obsessed with measurements, and his more humane sidekick Dr Whewell. The patients are presented in a cold, dehumanised way – name, height, background – as if they are just so many statistics, before each character has the chance to present their own story and sit back down amongst the audience.

First there is Ann Warburton, who sings a wistful wishing song, followed by a poignant interaction between the Calders. The unruly and violent Mary follows, then Charles Hill, who imitates Dr Perceval verbatim. The pregnant Lily Handley, later to have her child taken away from her, and Ripper-obsessed MaGarrigal complete the short and disturbing series of vignettes. And in the midst of all this is a very powerful scene, with a thoroughly intrusive medical examination of one of the inmates.

The trembling characters give a chilling insight into the nature of madness, in the face of a cruel, uncaring and patronising régime.  Eerie whisperings and mumblings underscore the unsettling text.  Brecht himself did not want his actors to “stand out” in conventional theatrical terms – but there are moving and towering performances from Kate Thomasson as Mary and Helen Dodd as the God-obsessed, deranged Ann. Martin Drew’s strong voice and presence as Perceval are arresting, while Terry Naylor shows versatility as Whewell, attendant Stubbins and MaGarrigal.

Sue Womersley’s direction is true to the spirit of Brecht, as is the sparse set and the writer’s interest in ordinary people. The audience, amongst whom the inmates sit – sometimes in character, sometimes not – are on all sides of the stage, and the house lights are left on a lot of the time.  The episodic nature of the story is punctuated regularly and at times incongruously by songs and discordant music.  I felt there were a little too many of the former, though the contrast between the doctor’s stark diagnosis and the lyrical beauty of one of the later songs was particularly effective.

Dance and movement feature prominently – there is a puppet-style interlude and the inmates dance around the doctor as if he were a maypole – and Perceval cuts a Christ-like figure in one scene with the religion-fixated Ann.  Towards the end of the performance, masks are donned, stripping away the humanity in the same way as the portraits in the opening scene.

This is a highly effective and disturbing play.  There was the odd fluffed line and missed cue on the opening night, but on the whole the actors and direction all contribute to an engaging piece.  Curiously, this is in some ways what Brecht would not have aimed for: his didactic approach wanted critical thought to replace emotional involvement.  Yet it is difficult, where hearing the plaintive “we’re all walking wounded”, not to feel caught up with the plight of these sorry inmates.

Writer Northey’s worthy stated intent is to make small changes in everyday people’s lives, and to acknowledge these residents. After a brief preview at the Buxton Fringe this is one of 13 new plays featuring at Manchester’s 24:7 festival – and I recommend that you see what is a challenging and often disturbing piece of theatre.

We reviewed a performance of this play at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, but it has now moved to the United Reformed Church.

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