Review: Bedlam at CLF Art Cafe

Written by Tom Hodson (who also directs), Matt Forey, Lucy Hilton-Jones, Christopher Roscoe Brown and Peter Stone (who all star), Bedlam is a cleverly written and performed drama about a couple in crisis. As they attempt to resolve their differences, the production plays with its audience’s sympathies and assumptions, leaving us wondering who’s to blame and if there’s even a relationship left to save.

Ellie (Lucy Hilton-Jones) thinks her boyfriend George (Matt Forey) has cheated on her, but he swears that he hasn’t. They both want the truth to come out, so in desperation they’ve agreed to take part in a kind of therapy, the exact details of which are somewhat unclear. They’ve both been assigned a member of staff (Peter Stone and Christopher Roscoe Brown, respectively), whose job is to listen to and support each of them as they talk things out and get to the bottom of what’s gone wrong in their relationship. What they’re not allowed to do is speak to each other – at least not yet.

While this is going on, the audience is also trying to piece together the real story. In the isolation of their own rooms, with the encouragement of an unconditionally supportive ally, both Ellie and George seem to be in the right – which instantly puts whoever we’re not currently listening to in the wrong. But life is rarely that simple, and flashbacks charting the couple’s relationship from day one bring shades of grey into a picture that at first seems starkly black and white. Ellie may be paranoid, but perhaps her past experiences mean she has more than a little justification. Equally, George may not have been completely honest about everything, but maybe he’s had a legitimate reason for not sharing the whole truth.

Tom Hodson directs a very cohesive production, in which every element contributes to an increasingly uncomfortable feeling of division. The set, designed by Ed Saunders, is a mirror image: two identical rooms, with identical sofas, in which Ellie and George are each lit by harsh white spotlights. The only time we see them together is during the flashbacks, which take place at the front of the stage, where the lighting is much softer and the furnishings far less austere. Here we find them flirting awkwardly on their first encounter, dancing and drinking, fighting and making up… In short, they’re a normal, perfectly imperfect couple – a million miles away from the two unhappy individuals sitting on those sofas – who probably would have done better to stay home and work things out on their own.

But of course it’s very easy to say that with the benefit of hindsight. In the moment, Bedlam carries us along, casually encouraging us to switch allegiance with each new revelation, and it’s impressive – and depressing – to realise, afterwards, just how easily it does this. An original, skilfully put together production, Bedlam turns the spotlight neatly back on to its audience to ask some interesting and uncomfortable questions about trust, relationships and human nature.

Bedlam is at CLF Art Cafe until 16th November.

Review: Poisoned Polluted at Old Red Lion Theatre

Kathryn O’Reilly’s second play Poisoned Polluted focuses on the fragmenting relationship between two women – in this case, sisters. The play follows the two, known only as Her (Anna Doolan) and Sister (Kathryn O’Reilly), as they’re forced to leave behind the innocence of childhood and face up to an uncertain future that’s scarred by addiction and trauma. As the years pass, their close bond and love for each other becomes twisted into something that will ultimately prove damaging to them both.

As children, the sisters hide out from their mum’s addiction and their dad’s abuse in the local “forest” – which, with the benefit of hindsight, they can now acknowledge was really just a few trees next to the park. That motif of nature as a tainted refuge is present also in Mayou Trikerioti’s set, which consists of printed, peeling sheets that make up a distorted backdrop image of woodland trees.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

The play itself is structured as a series of short, sharp scenes which, under Lucy Allan’s direction, often flow seamlessly into one another. These chart the sisters’ downward spiral and the shift in their relationship as Her, who as a child benefited from her older sister’s protection, finds herself suddenly forced to return the favour. Anna Doolan and Kathryn O’Reilly both give excellent performances, meticulously portraying all their characters’ fear, frustration and pent-up resentment, right alongside the love and affection that continues against all odds to hold these two damaged women together. The tragedy of the play is that the two characters need each other – and yet neither of them can truly be happy until they break free of their never-ending cycle of codependency.

While the use of language in the play is important, just as powerful are the moments of silence; movement sequences between scenes (directed by Sophie Shaw), performed without words, evoke the painful emotions that dialogue – even the most poetic – can’t quite capture. Similarly, though they never appear on stage and feature only briefly at the start of the story, the sisters’ parents both loom large as characters throughout, and there are moments when, if we follow the actors’ fearful gazes, we can picture them clearly and feel the anxiety their presence continues to evoke.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

As Sister tries again and again to get clean, the play begins to take on a feeling of repetition – but just as we begin to share Her’s frustration and despair, everything comes slamming to a halt with an emotional gut-punch of a final scene. This is a story in which we understand early on there can be no winners, whatever the final outcome, and that knowledge makes it an intense and often difficult watch. Powerfully written and performed, the play shines an uncomfortable light on the ways in which a relationship that should be healthy and innocent can be twisted by the actions of others into something deeply damaging, and how the repercussions of a difficult childhood can continue to be felt even years later.

Poisoned Polluted is at Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th November.

Review: A Haunted Existence at Battersea Arts Centre

It doesn’t take long to understand that for writer and performer Tom Marshman, the events that inspired A Haunted Existence are far more than just a story. This is clear in the format of the show, which is part presentation, part performance, part seance – but also in the obvious affection and respect with which he speaks of the men involved in the shocking case he describes.

Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

It all began with seventeen-year-old Geoffrey Patrick Williamson, who was arrested on a train in 1953 for making “improper advances” to a man who turned out to be a plain clothes Railway Officer. When questioned, the teenager named several other men he had been involved with sexually, adding “You may find these things morally wrong. I do not.” This, along with the names of the men he identified – many of whom were subsequently imprisoned – becomes a common refrain throughout the hour-long show, as we’re taken on a journey through music, projection and movement back to a time when being gay was not just a criminal offence, but was “treated” in the most horrific and dehumanising ways.

The title of the show is taken from a speech by Lord Owen, in which he referred to the lives of necessarily closeted gay men as “a haunted existence”. It could just as easily, however, refer to Tom Marshman himself, who clearly identifies with these men and sets out to bring them to life on stage to hear their stories and honour the sacrifices they made.

This he does not only with immense care, but also with great artistry and attention to detail. As a performer, he’s instantly personable, self-deprecating and funny, taking historical facts and presenting them in an engaging and varied format that easily holds our attention. His movements are graceful and precise, creating sequences that are hauntingly beautiful to watch, particularly set as they are to music that’s been carefully selected to evoke a specific moment or individual.

Photo credit: Matt Glover

The details we learn about what happened to gay men only a few decades ago – imprisonment, social rejection, brutal aversion therapies, suicide – are deeply shocking and difficult to hear. Nevertheless, the show does end on a note of optimism, sharing some of the happier endings enjoyed by a few of the men involved in the scandal. Marshman’s obvious joy at the discovery that Geoffrey Williamson ultimately found happiness is infectious, and more than a little emotional for an audience by now fully invested in the outcome of his story.

A Haunted Existence is far from your typical night at the theatre, and is in a lot of ways quite a difficult show to put into words. It does, however, tell an important and powerful story and is rich in both atmosphere and emotion. Perhaps most importantly, it’s clearly a labour of love for Tom Marshman, and this alone makes it well worth a visit.

A Haunted Existence continues on tour – visit for dates and venues.

Review: Gaslight at Playground Theatre

I recently read an interview with actor and writer Rebecca Humphries, who last year found herself at the centre of a media storm when she very publicly – and deservedly – broke up with her boyfriend, the comedian Seann Walsh. In the interview, she explained that she knew something was wrong in her relationship, but it was only when she first heard the term “gaslighting” that she was quite able to put her finger on the problem.

Photo credit: William Waterworth

The same could be said of Bella Manningham (Jemima Murphy), the central character in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. She’s become forgetful and irrational, losing her own possessions and apparently moving those of her husband, Jack (Jordan Wallace). She hears footsteps in the empty apartment above, and is convinced that she sees the gaslight dimming every evening while her husband is away. Encouraged by her husband, Bella begins to believe the worst: that, like her mother before her, she’s losing her mind. It’s not until unorthodox police inspector Rough (Joe McArdle) bursts very suddenly into her life one evening that her eyes are opened to the truth about both her husband and the psychological abuse to which he’s been subjecting her for years.

Though written in 1938 and set in 1880, the play could hardly be more relevant, with knowledge and recognition of gaslighting as a concept considerably more widespread in 2019. This production, directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, blurs the timing of the action by retaining the original dialogue but allowing the characters a more relaxed way of speaking. Meanwhile Kate Halstead’s set design combines Victorian furniture with a modern filing cabinet and pink carpet of a shade that was apparently proven in the 1960s to calm people down. Though occasionally distracting, this merging of timelines is clever and for the most part works well.

The strongest and most interesting performances come from Jemima Murphy and Joe McArdle – the former captures Bella’s nervous energy and confusion, while the latter brings a slightly dangerous edge to the character of Rough. The exchanges between the two provide plenty of audience laughs, but also, at times, add to our unease. For all his charming eccentricity, in some ways the police inspector feels just as patronising and bullying as Bella’s husband, to the extent that I never really picked up on the promised “fresh and feminist perspective” – and more than once half expected another, even bigger, twist at the end of the play.

Photo credit: William Waterworth

That particular twist didn’t materialise, but nonetheless the story holds plenty of surprises as the truth is gradually pieced together. The building suspense is accentuated by Gregory Jordan’s all-important lighting design, which sees lights fading and flickering at moments of particular tension, and a barely perceptible rumble throughout, courtesy of sound designer Herbert Homer-Warbeck.

80 years after it was first performed, Gaslight remains a powerful and thought-provoking play, with a plot that’s intriguing and full of surprises, underpinned by a creeping tension throughout. While this reimagining doesn’t necessarily deliver on all its promises, the production does successfully highlight the continuing relevance of both the story and its core issue.

Gaslight is at the Playground Theatre until 10th November.

Review: Fast at Park Theatre

Based on a true story, Kate Barton’s play Fast invites its audience into the disturbing world of “Dr” Linda Hazzard (Caroline Lawrie), whose controversial fasting diet method claimed the lives of multiple patients in the early 20th century. In particular the play focuses on the case of Claire and Dora Williamson (Jordon Stevens and Natasha Cowley), two wealthy English sisters who sought Hazzard’s help, with tragic consequences.

The premise of the play is already chilling enough, but director Kate Valentine’s production ramps up the creepiness to the point where you wonder how Hazzard could possibly have got away with it for so long. The design work by Emily Bestow (set and costumes), David Chilton (sound) and Ben Bull (lighting) is pure black and white horror movie: the sanitarium is dark and echoey, with flickering lights, ripped and stained curtains and sinister dripping noises. From the start, its owner has every appearance of being a fanatic, who makes up her patients’ room by pulling the beds out of the wall just like drawers in a morgue. Watching the Williamson sisters check in strongly resembles the moment in a movie when the unwitting victims enter the haunted house of their own free will, despite everyone in the audience willing them to run the other way. Throw in a power cut, a thunderstorm and something very bad waiting to be discovered in a bathtub, and you’ve got the makings of a very creepy play indeed.

All this leaves us in no doubt that Linda Hazzard was a monster, who preyed on the anxiety and gullibility of her patients, starved them for weeks on end, and then stole their possessions after they died. What the play doesn’t do so well is to explain why she did any of this. Caroline Lawrie is excellent in her portrayal of the “doctor”, and it’s clear from the earnest way she addresses the audience that she genuinely believes in her own methods (so much so that in the end, she herself died as a result of them). But the horror movie aspect is such a dominant presence throughout that this clearly complicated character lacks depth, and even when Hazzard raises reasonable points – such as the media’s insistence on calling her a “woman doctor” – it’s difficult to see her as anything other than a self-serving villain.

Her victims, on the other hand, are far easier to relate to, their vague health concerns and desperate need to believe in anything that will make them feel better all too recognisable over a century later. Natasha Cowley and Jordon Stevens make a strong and convincing partnership as the chalk and cheese sisters, the former no-nonsense and cynical, the latter romantic and dreamy. Once inside the sanitarium, their one hope of salvation is Daniel Norford’s charming and resourceful Horace Cayton Jnr., a journalist who follows his instincts and ultimately plays a key role in bringing Hazzard to justice.

Taken at face value as a thriller, Fast works well enough, and the production is particularly strong from a design perspective (although – small gripe – some of the sight lines could be improved; sitting three rows back, it’s hard to see what’s happening at ground level, much of which is pretty important). At times, though, it feels like the play is too caught up in the undeniably gory details of “Dr” Hazzard’s career, and consequently it fails to open up any meaningful discussion about how or why such a horrific chain of events could have taken place. Similarly, there are parallels to be drawn with the fad diets and wellness trends of the 21st century, but these aren’t really explored in any depth. Based on a repellent but fascinating historical figure, the play doesn’t quite live up to its potential – but as Halloween approaches, horror movie fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy in this chilling new play.

Fast is at Park Theatre until 9th November.